Travel: Oklahoma City, America’s Best Weekend Getaway Secret

I’ve been to Oklahoma City twice in my life.  Both times didn’t disappoint.

The fact is, this place is way too cool, and has way too much going on, and yet, when you think of weekend getaways, when was the last time that Oklahoma City came up?  I’m willing to bet that if you’re from Oklahoma, or Western Arkansas, you didn’t think of OKC once.

That’s a shame, because aside from an massive amount of US history, covering many time periods, all located in around the greater OKC area, there is plenty to do for both families, and young adults, without bumping into each other.  How many places in the US can host both audiences, and claim that?

First, I’m going to talk about food.  I shared some of the offerings with my private circle, but I have to tell you, even a whole album on Instagram isn’t going to do justice for the food in OKC.

OKC has a plethora of Italian cuisine.  You’ll find plenty of offerings, whether it’s Stella in the north end (1201 N Walker), Patrono (305 N Walker) which is closer to downtown, or Zio’s in Bricktown (12 E California), there are plenty of options to get your pasta on.  Italians have had a long history in OKC, though understated, much like the city itself.

When I go to OKC, I pass by all those great offerings, and go straight to the barbecue.  Look, you can talk about Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and all that is great.  None of it compares to Oklahoma Barbecue.

Oklahoma barbecue goes all the way to the Trail of Tears, when Choctaw and Cherokee Natives that were marched from Alabama and Tennessee came to the area now known as the Osage Reservation.  They brought with them “hogfires” which is quiet similar to the Hawaiian tradition of roasting a whole pig on open flame.

As cattle ranching took full hold in Texas, and the meat markets in Kansas City, Omaha, Chicago, and Eastern Wisconsin, cattle needed places to overnight, and coincidentally Oklahoma served as a great location to feed cattle on their way north.  Eventually the idea of ranching took hold Oklahoma, and soon beef cuts were incorporated into Oklahoma’s fine tradition of hog cooking.  As the 20th century roared, so did the style of Oklahoma barbecue.   An emphasis on wood that produced fragrant smoke, less reliance on sauce (a Texas trait), but definitely the type of sauce ingredients you’d find in Kansas City.  Oklahoma also incorporates Bologna Sausage into their repertoire, which you won’t anywhere else in the barbecue ecosystem.

They serve green onion, cut at the root, to neutralize the smokey flavor the meat leaves behind, because Oklahoma barbecue carries smoke with it.  It’s not over the top, nor does it dry out the meat like heavy smoke can sometimes do.

My favorite places when it comes to this delicious cuisine, Blu’s BBQ and Burgers (612 N Robinson), Earl’s Rib Palace in Bricktown (216 Johnny Bench Drive), and Bedlam BBQ (610 NE 50th Street).

I won’t go heavy into the menus, because the real experience is figuring things out for yourself, but I will tell you can’t go wrong at any of these places, but to give you a heads up, yes the ribs at Earl’s are too good to be true.  And Blu’s offers a side called a Haystack.  You’d be crazy to pass it up.  Bedlam has a side called green rice….you’d also be crazy not to order it.

When you visit OKC, make sure to visit Bricktown.  It’s a former warehouse district, turned entertainment mecca.  Plenty of local acts, even The Flaming Lips make appearances from time to time, and are immortalized in Bricktown by the aptly named “Flaming Lips Alley.”  For my money, I like to hang out at Mojo’s Blues Bar, nestled at the west end of the alley, near the back end of Bricktown’s canal and riverwalk, which features a water taxi, with corresponding history spoken from the driver/tour guide.  If you go to Mojo’s, be sure to bring cash, to tip all the bands performing, and keep your drink orders simple.

Outside of the bars, and there are plenty of them, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ AAA affiliate, the Oklahoma City Dodgers play in Bricktown at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark.  It’s tops in AAA ballparks, and is certainly built to standards you would associate with major league parks, minus the capacity.  That said, you could take a family of six, eating in the stands and still keep the bill below 200 bucks at the end of the night.

Of course, Seattle’s prized franchise, the Seattle Supersonics now play in OKC under the alias Oklahoma Thunder.  If the NBA interests you, that is downtown, several blocks north of Bricktown.  But I’ll be frank, I liked OKC better before they brought the NBA to town.  I could say I’m bias because I don’t care for the NBA, but that’s not the issue.  The issue is the endless road construction projects that are found every few blocks, to redirect traffic, to widen lanes, all to accommodate the arena.  It makes for a drag, but in the end, it’s progress, and progress always has a toll.

A mere six miles south of downtown is the Cherokee Heritage Center, which is the proverbial end to the Trail of Tears, where the iconic statue by James Fraser, The End of the  Trail sits for all to see, and reflect on the results of greed and ignorance.

Equally as sad, and more intense in the present is back downtown, across the street from Blu’s BBQ & Burgers.  The Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum (620 N Harvey).  The ebb and flow of manicured beauty, and remnants of destruction is too much for my soul when I visit.  Every time I visit OKC, I visit this large chapter in our history, and I wouldn’t be telling the whole truth if I didn’t mention that I cry.  I can’t stop crying when I walk into the courtyard, where the north side of the Alfred P. Murrah building once stood.  I take in the inscription along the large concrete pillar entryways, showing the time explosion started, and the time build finally collapsed, a mere two minutes after the bomb went off.  I cry at the sight of the pretty tile art provided by children through the world, all informed by adults of the terrible day.  But mostly I cry at the site of the bronze chairs that are all neatly organized.  There are large chairs for adults, and small chairs that represent are most grime realizations, the brutal, horrific death of 19 children and infants.

I was a middle-school aged teen when the bombing happened, and the weight of that day didn’t reach me until many years later.  But forever more, whenever I visit the memorial, I cry at the sight of all those tiny chairs.

I can’t say this is the note I want to end on, as it’s never good to end a travel piece on such a raw, sour note.  But in the case of OKC it works.  The bombing was and is egregious.  But it did help bring the city together, something that had long disappeared prior to that awful day.  I have to tell you, if you’re looking for a weekend getaway with your friends, or a new place to take the family, you have to go to Oklahoma City.  It may not have the kinds of things that you associate with a vacation, but it has lots of new things, and historic things worth your time.

Oklahoma.  It’s not typical, it’s anything but.  I wonder if they’ll buy the tagline?

Travel: August in Puerto Rico

I consider myself lucky because I get to do a fair bit of travelling in my new lifestyle.  Something my former career wouldn’t allow for on the regular basis I now indulge.

And with that new found flexibility, I find myself frequenting a certain region….the Caribbean!

Ah yes, there’s truly nothing better than being in a hot and sunny locale with strong drinks and good books.  Laying on the beach, without a care in the world.  If you think your therapist does a good job working through your issues, try five days in Caribbean during the non-peak season, and you’ll accomplish a year’s worth of couch time.

At any rate, I’ve frequented foreign islands in the past, but this time I thought I would go where my driver’s license allows, and in this case, I chose Puerto Rico.

What a fantastic island!  I stayed in the Santurce area, which is the far north coast of San Juan.  Directly to the west is Old San Juan, and if you’re looking for that traditional Latin-Caribbean landscape, it’s the place to go!

If you don’t know, Puerto Rico is a fish fan’s paradise.  They have ample charters available, all geared towards grabbing those large red snappers, dolphin-fish (Mahi Mahi for those scared to use the word “dolphin”), and many other delicious seafood that swarms the region.

Be advised, that while much of the Caribbean has calm waves and water for miles around, Puerto Rico does not.  In fact, Puerto Rico has some very well-known surf spots on the island, that attract those in the know.  The waves are not what I would call difficult, but they are definitely different from what you may be used to in Caribbean.

That said, if you are into fishing, this kind of wave activity can be helpful in certain circumstances.  For one, it means that schools of fish, particularly tuna, will be moving in and out, and constantly fighting for position due to the water.  This means that their tired, and not always aware of their travel path, meaning that you can grab some big steals when you would normally be waiting out the calm.

At the same time, if you’re a beach goer, and you have children, you’re going to need to be cautious about where they are in relation to you.  These, though I said not difficult to contend with, are indeed strong, and they can move you without you realizing it.  Especially for kids that aren’t high school age, this can become a deadly scenario without any frame of reference.

If the quality of fishing I briefly described caught your attention, the food in Puerto Rico is as well.

Puerto Rico has their own bread, Pan de Agua, that has a sweet quality to it.  But it’s not so sweet that you would automatically label it as such.  After having ‘Pan’ with three or four of my meals, I have serious questions about all this white and wheat bread I was being given throughout the years.

The beaches are great, except that if you go out in the early morning, say to watch the sunrise (and they are absolutely stunning in PR, I highly recommend this!), you might find that hotel guests and even some locals have strewn trash about from the night before.  And that’s a bit sad.

Surely, travelers are to blame for much of this, but that anyone would ruin a gorgeous beach with trash is just, well, trashy.

That said, much of the employees of the businesses along the beach put in a lot of effort to clean up, and it’s certainly commendable.  I felt like these folks are unsung heroes, and I hope that when you visit, you make sure to thank them for their efforts like I did.

The hospitality of staff here is consistent with what you find in the US, nothing terrible, nothing extraordinary.

There was a bartender at La Concha’s Sunday brunch that lined us up with a lot twists on mimosas that were absolutely delicious!  Even if you’re not a mimosa drinker, try the Soursop version, it’s well worth it.

It’s unfortunate, but Puerto Rico is in massive debt.  One local told me 1.5 trillion, several others said that was a stretch, stating the total was around 72 billion.  What was clear was that with the government beyond broke, not much was getting done, and it was up to private investment to solve the gap.  I hope that doesn’t mean more taxes, because Puerto Rico as a tourist destination is already more spendy than anyone in the industry would like.

Since I left on August 29th, Hurricane Irma hit, and it appears that flooding has caused the bulk of problems faced.  That’s a good thing, in that much of the infrastructure is not in ruin, albeit that roads could become suspect from the water exposure.

What I would say is if you’ve been thinking about going to Puerto Rico, and you’ve been putting it off, come December, when it’s too cold in the contiguous 48, take a trip south and spend some time (and money) in Puerto Rico.  You’ll love the experience, and the people will love to do fair business with you.

Until next time!

Travel Review: The Bahamas in Christmas

So, while most of you were enjoying a snowy Christmas, I bucked the trend and went to 87 degrees and balmy.

You guessed it, The Bahamas.  And before you judge, which you are, it was as awesome as you think, even when you factor in no snow for Christmas.

I went to a Breezes resort, and it was ok to average.  It’s definitely catering to singles.  Which was weird, because there were several “singles” that were with their mothers, trying to pick up other singles.  It’s a brave, weird world we live in.

The weather was absolutely terrific, and exactly what I needed at that point in the year!  And I have to tell you, I’m certain I’ll be doing the exact same thing for Christmas, every time I can afford it!  I’ve had enough snow, ice, cold, and wind, to last my lifetime.  I’d much rather be on the beach.

And the beaches in The Bahamas are where it’s at!  The picture above comes straight from my old phone, so apologies for the quality.  But, what it conveys is how perfect it is during Christmas in the Caribbean.  Peaceful blue water, white sand, and miles of beach to walk and explore.

There are some condemned resorts in the section of Nassau that we were in, that made the place seem like a shanty town.  A custom by the foreign construction workers is to camp out in the building their renovating, so the hurricane-swept vacant towers of a never-opened resort, had towels, clothes, and other odds and ends hanging in the air, with random cooking fire flames sprouting up every now and again.

Buffet breakfasts in the Caribbean resorts are the best meal of the day, they have flanks of smoked salmon, slices of well-aged gouda, and omelettes on demand.  Of course, you’ll eat hearty, and it can catch up to you, in the belly, or while swimming, so even though it’s all-inclusive, watch how much you’re filling up.  People indulge, no matter who they are, and there’s nothing worse than someone having stomach cramps by 10:00 AM in the hot tub, lest it be you.

It doesn’t matter who you are, bring sunscreen.  I can’t stress it enough.  Some people with darker complexions at the resort burned, thinking they were UV ray proof.  Surprise, you’re not!  There’s no shame in using sunscreen anyway.

Also, it turns out there’s a big opening in the real estate market in The Bahamas, and they’re wide open to US investment.  Many of the properties I toured were far more reasonably priced than you can imagine.  What I can say is go check it out for yourself, you’d be surprised how affordable it is, if that’s your interest, and how stable the houses there are, even in the face of a hurricane.

In brief, the next time you’re up for Christmas vacation, consider The Bahamas!

Travel Review: Toronto in Summer

I traveled to Toronto for an extended weekend getaway.  Normally for summer, I like to go to the Caribbean, but I went in the opposite direction because the flights were insanely cheap, and the hotels were willing to throw in so discounts and extras to the point that it would be idiotic to not go.

But I went into it thinking, meh, I’ll go, it’ll be “nice” weather, and it’ll be one of the cheapest vacations I’ll regret.

I can tell you that the phrase “book by it’s cover” is ever present in everything we do.

Toronto was a blast!

For one, don’t let the weather stereotypes fool you, they have real summer in Toronto.  Low 80’s, high UV Index, and enough humidity coming off Lake Ontario to make it reminiscent of a day on the Delaware coast.

For the record, I went in mid-August, in case you decide to plan your own trip.

Toronto has some ‘typical’ tourist attractions, CN Tower, Hockey Hall of Fame, baseball at the Rogers Centre.  But here’s something that Toronto does far better than some US big city counterparts: themed weeks.

A type of festival that is left to certain corners of the US, and New Orleans, the idea of an succinct themed week, at any time of year, seems to be a celebration of yesteryear in the US in the modern era.  Instead, we get one type of event for a weekend, at one location.  The days of multiple businesses and venues getting together to host one, or even two themes that support one another is something “relegated” to small towns for the most part.

Well, based on how Toronto does it, we’re missing out in the US, and I hope at least one person in a community looking to fill a void reads this realizes that they are missing out on serious tourist potential.

Now here’s the great thing about Toronto: they are combining multiple elements to make up a party atmosphere, out on their boardwalk mainly.  That’s right, Toronto has a fantastic boardwalk, meant for biking, walking, running, dogs, oh, and midnight pirate boating….more on that later.

It turns out that combining spicy food, second line bands, and straight funk, you’ve got yourself one of the liveliest street festivals.  Seriously, you missed out!  August 19th to the 21st, the Treme Brass Band (one of my personal favorites!) was beating those drums, and playing the soul out of those horns.  Yuka, a Stax Records-influenced funk band played as well, and all the spicy food, from barbecue to middle eastern.  And it was all very great!

But here’s the best part….while most communities that host themed festivals will host once a year, Toronto does a continued stream of them!  You get about 24 hours of break in between (probably called a “hang-over” day by locals, but you didn’t hear that from me), and then they right back to business, all summer long.

In the days before I got there, they have a Tapas festival, and brought in chefs from all over the world to “compete” by making unique takes on tapas to pair with, you guessed, craft beer.  Look, you may not be a foodie, and you may not like craft beer.  If you show up to a town that has a tapas and craft beer festival going on right outside your hotel lobby, something tells me I find you there, ten times out of ten.

And they had so many different kinds of tapas, it was impossible to try them all, along with all the beer.  But hey, no one’s stopping you from trying!

So we’ve talked tourist stuff, the boardwalk, now let’s talk about the beach……yea, Toronto has a beach.  Prepare yourself.

Toronto Harbour (their spelling, not mine) is created by mainland Toronto, and the Toronto Islands.  Yes, there’s islands out in the water of Lake Ontario, and it’s a beach goers paradise!  When I was there, the locals described the place as three islands, but as I walked around, I found several distinct islands, but some locals don’t refer to all of them.  There’s Centre Island, which maintains the major beach on the island.  There’s the area known as Ward’s Island, which is the far east area of the islands.  There is also a few hundred residents living there, but the Canadian government is working to put that to a halt (so much for freedom!)

There’s Algonquin Island, and then the much smaller islands of Mugg’s, Forestry, Snake, South Chippewa, South, and RCYC.  They all serve island specific activities like forest preservation, wildlife habitation, yacht clubs, and rumor has it, nude beaches…..I was told this goes on at Ward’s Island, but I didn’t check.  I say, enter at your own risk.

What I can tell you is that Toronto has put in a lot of effort to maintain clean beaches, and to create an inviting locale to beach it up!  I was thoroughly impressed.  They have built rock walls into the lake that form a calm atmosphere along the beach, but also have created see-to-the-bottom waters that any Caribbean spot would feel threatened by.

The only thing missing is bars and attendant service.  But, that’s no reason not to go, and there is a small spattering for huts to grab plenty of food, and of course beer.

It’s easy to get to the islands, you purchase a ferry ticket, take the 15 minute ride across the harbor, and you’re there.  An equally timed walk gets you to the lake side of the island, and subsequent beach.  It’s way too awesome to pass up, especially since many tourists don’t consider Canada for summer time!

Back on the mainland, there’s plenty of night excursions to get involved in, like the endless stream of boats that cruise the harbor, encourage terrible singing, and laughs all the while.

Also, you’ll probably meet some really cool Canadians, who aren’t fussy about cheese, or socialism, no matter what Justin Trudeau tries to do.

All in all, Toronto is a fantastic place to vacation, especially in summer.  Don’t short-change yourself, get in on the fun now while you can.  At some point, the rest of the world is going to hear about how cool the Canadian NYC is!