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Monday, October 10, 2011

Nor'Easter 2011: Philly

Every man, no matter what age, deserves to unwind with his buddies.  This is essential to maintaining a good balance in your life.  Whether your interest lies in fishing, seeing your favorite sports team play, or any other number of hobbies, heading out with a few close friends to partake in your favorite shared activity is a great way to escape the pressures of the daily grind.  With this in mind, my friends and I created The Nor’Easter.  This is the name we have given our annual guys’ trip.  The premise is to seek out a new city each year, finding out what makes each destination unique. We usually seek out urban environments, hit up some of the well know eateries, investigate the music scene, and take time to learn some history along the way.  While this is our focus, it’s not uncommon for us to find our way into the local haunts – from the gritty dive bars to the most hidden local hangouts in each city.

The Nor’Easter was conceived about seven years ago when Moops, Barnett, and Mike – my cohorts – went up to NYC to play a gig with their college band.  We look back on this as the genesis of what became our trip.  After several more random trips over the following years it was apparent, going to a new city each year and checking out the scene was pretty fun.  However, our trip as it’s now known includes four of us, and it all really began in Chicago in 2007.  Each year we table some ideas for the next city via email and discuss the merits of what makes that location interesting enough for a weekend.  It could be great BBQ, a well-known brewery, or a famous music venue.  Once a location is selected you can bet we will be there the third weekend in August.

There are many guidelines and customs for Nor’Easter.  First, the trip is meant for a weekend.  Fly out Friday, taking a half day at most.  The first man to arrive at the hotel is responsible for setting up the bar.  He is tasked with finding some good local beer and having it on ice at the hotel when the others arrive.   A constant goal throughout the weekend is to get down with the locals.  This can be any number of things, but hitting up a house party is the preferred method.  It’s crucial to utlize public transportation as much as possible.  Get out and see the town, but don’t stress over getting to every tourist spot – just maintain a comfortable pace.  Pre-dinner charcuterie Saturday night is recommended.  It’s a great way to chill and hash out some ideas before a night on the town.  Finally, you want to be the last one to leave on Sunday, this is highly respected.

This year, the city of Brotherly Love beckoned, Philly was selected as our destination.  Philly typically gets a bad rap because it’s rough around the edges – something I wouldnt argue – but beyond the tough exterior is a city with great food traditions and some of America’s best history.

The travel God’s were not smiling upon us this year.  Despite making it to the Atlanta airport at 5PM to catch my flight to PHL, I found myself landing in Baltimore at midnight and renting a car.  After a two hour drive, Barnett and I finally arrived at our hotel in the City Hall district around 3AM.  Luckily Mike and Moops had some cold Yards waiting for us weary travelers. 

Our Saturday started a little late, but appropriately, we headed over to Pat’s for the original cheese steak.   While I think anyone who enjoys a good cheese steak should visit Pat’s to pay homage, I would say to keep your expectations low.  The sandwich was prepared hastily and was underwhelming.  My main complaint?  Too much bread.  I don’t consider myself a food critic so I’ll just end by saying, the sandwich was ok. 

After lunch we had the entire day ahead of us.  You would be remiss to visit Philly and not take in some historical sites, and by that I mean anything featured in the movie Rocky.  Our next stop was the Philadelphia Museum of Art, made famous by its massive front steps and the scene in Rocky where Stallone finishes his long run.  The city recognizes the significance of this with a life size statue of Rocky Balboa near the base of the iconic stairs; of course we got a picture with it.  After leaving the library we made our way to some real historical sites, the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and Ben Franklin’s grave.


We tend to walk a lot and this year was no exception.  After a few hours of seeing sights we needed to rest our legs.  We made our way to the South street neighborhood for an afternoon cocktail.  O’Neals is an Irish pub with a patio out back that’s perfect for on a sunny August day.  A few whiskey and ginger’s later the edge was sufficiently off and we had planned our next move. 

Our next destination was the Reading Terminal Market.  I have visited markets all over the world and this one certainly competes with the best of them.  The Reading Market was just a few blocks from our hotel and sells everything from fresh fish to gourmet chocolate.  Frankly, you could spend the entire day at this place and not be bored, tons of great merchants and food vendors!  After purchasing an assortment of olives, cheese, bread, cured meats and wine, we were headed back to the hotel to relax.  Despite getting to see some of the best things a city has to offer, our pre-dinner ritual is really one of the best parts of the weekend.  Having some light food and drinks while planning the night ahead is a great way to unwind and get ready for a night on the town.

While getting ready, we convinced Barnett that every shirt he brought was ugly and he should probably just stay in, but thankfully Moops offered a shirt of his own for the evening, and we headed over to Buddakan.  We heard the Philly location opened to much fanfare a few years ago, serving as an Asian fusion restaurant in Old City.  Despite having the worst vodka gimlet of my life at the bar prior to dinner, the overall experience was good, except for Moops sending back his meal, something he claims that he ‘never does’, but he’s batting about 50/50 on Nor’Easter’s thus far – food snob.. What this place may lack in food and drink is definitely made up in atmosphere and clientele.  

After dinner we decided to keep it close to the hotel and hit up a watering hole in City Hall.  Per usual, we ended up meeting some friendly locals and chatting late into the night.  What do you do when last call comes around and you feel that twinge of hunger? In Philly, you hit up a late night cheese steak.  That’s right, the second cheese steak in roughly 12 hours, that’s what we do.  I can’t recall the name of the sandwich shop or even what part of town it was in, but I do remember taking a  20 minute cab ride each way because we heard it was that good.  This was by far the best cheese steak of the weekend, and it leads me to believe that it’s not all about Pat’s or Geno’s, rather it’s the small, local places that are worth checking out.  Moral of the story?  Forget the hype and keep it simple when it comes to cheese steaks in Philly.

Sundays are always bitter-sweet.  The trip is coming to an end, but after a weekend of late nights the prospect of getting home always sounds nice.  Another Nor’Easter tradition worth mentioning, always request a late check-out and extra breakfast vouchers.  That way you can sleep in late Sunday and start the day with coffee and hopefully a ready-made omelet.  Honestly, I've started doing this on all trips when I have time to spare on Sunday, why not? 

Before we could say goodbye to Phlly, we had one more stop on our trail.  Dinic’s Roast Pork and Beef.  This place serves a great roast pork sandwich with sautéed broccoli rabe topping.  If you are keeping count, that’s three big sandwiches in 24 hours and yes, it was awesome. 

All in all, another successful trip, city, and experience.  Watch out Buffalo, NY a Nor’Easter is soon headed your way.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Surf Camp: Nicaragua

I learned two important lessons in Nicaragua.
  1. Surfing is hard.
  2. Hotels without electricity have a special kind of charm.
When my friend Noah approached me about taking surfing trip I was immediately intrigued.  As he filled me in on the details I knew this was something I couldn’t pass up.  The idea was to head down to Nicaragua, soak up some sun and catch some waves.  We would be staying at Los Cardones, a hotel that caters to surfers and offers some very reasonable rates. Three meals a day, lodging, and all the cold beer you can drink.  Sign me up!
Upon arriving in Managua, we took a two hour trip out to the Pacific coast.  One hour of the drive was on rutted out dirt roads; you definitely know you are far from home.  Immediately after we pulled into Los Cardones, I knew that this was going to be very different from staying at a normal hotel.  Los Cardones isn’t really a hotel, its an “eco-lodge” that maintains a focus on methods which are sustainable and environmentally friendly.  Open air cabanas are built across the grounds and provide shelter for dining, sleeping, and hammock lounging.  You are literally never more than 10 yards from a hammock; it’s just one of those things you cant have too many of.  While the cabana I slept in did have brick walls, its lack of air conditioning, electricity, and a bathroom are what really defined it... and the resident bat that was living in the shower.  He only came in to eat in the middle of the night so I didn’t mind sharing the room.  The palm thatched roof and mosquito net that enclosed the bed really set the mood.  Did I mention it overlooks the beach? 

Being so close to the elements leads to early mornings since you pretty much rise with the sun.  This turned out to be a good thing since the best time to surf the local break is at 6AM.  I’m not one to hop out of bed at daybreak all the time, but the excitement to get out in the ocean and get my pro surfing career in motion was enough to get me going.  Eight of us who were all staying at Los Cardones packed into the late model Mitsubishi 4x4 truck with our boards and headed up the road to the prime surf break in the area.  I spent the bulk of the morning battling waves with my huge foam board, trying to paddle out past the breakers and sucking down salt water.  Surfing is far more exhausting than I anticipated.  After a few hours of struggling I did manage to get up and catch a few waves.  This brief moment of triumph (I felt like Swayze in Point Break) will probably have me heading back to another beach in the future.  As it turns out, my pro surfing career is on hold for now, but I’m expecting some calls about sponsorships soon.  

After a long morning learning that the ocean can make you look foolish at will, we returned to the lodge for a late breakfast of rice and beans with eggs, the typical Nicaraguan breakfast.  Over the next few hours I escaped from the heat with a combination of hammock naps, cold beers, and highly competitive games of Connect Four.  

After another surf session in the early evening things started to wind down for the day.  Just as days start early with the sunrise, they also end early with the sunset.  That was fine with me, after all the surfing I was ready for a hearty meal.  I should mention that every meal we had at Los Cardones was great; despite having a very modest kitchen they do an amazing job feeding their guests.  There are quite a few tables in the main cabana that combined so all the guests could eat together.  There were only about 15 of us. It’s like joining a surfing commune for the weekend.  After a nice dinner I made my way back to my cabana, using my flashlight to navigate the dark paths and avoid the hundreds of crabs that come out at night.

That’s pretty much how the days go at Los Cardones.  A little surfing, a few brews, all at your own (medium) pace.  In my daily world, work emails are endless, traffic is bad and my blackberry never turns off. Escaping to a place where there in no television, the most important item on your daily agenda is surfing, and evening brings the simple pleasure of conversation over a bottle of Flor de Cana, really offers a fresh perspective.  

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Hello friends and strangers,
Through a combination of hard work and random circumstance I found myself employed at a major airline by age 23.  I was a young, underpaid, cube dweller in the corporate grind, but every weekend a new city was my escape.  When your flights are free and all you need is enough cash for a hotel and a bar tab, things get interesting.  The lifestyle of a broke airline employee can actually be pretty sweet.  It’s a few years later and I’m still at it, seeing the world one weekend at a time.
Out on the Weekend is a place for stories and photographs.  If you are of like mind and think travel is one of the best ways to learn about the world and enjoy yourself along the way, then read on.

Welcome to Out on the Weekend.