Wednesday, June 25, 2014

You'll Have a Gay Old Time

In my five years in New York so far, I've had trouble finding a proper replacement for my favorite ice cream spot at home, The Custard Hut (which I mention here). There's a frozen yogurt place on every corner and Mr. Softee trucks all over, but nothing really feels the same as the dinky little ice cream shack we would go to celebrate every soccer game, awards night, science fair, or choir concert.

I've been dying to try out Big Gay Ice Cream for years but the moment was never right whenever I walked by. The moment *was* right on Monday. Aubrey, Emmy, and I celebrated Aubrey's birthday at the West Village shop at Grove & 7th Ave - the original location is in the East Village on 7th St between 1st & A. When I arrived, I attempted to convince a French bulldog owner who was leaving to stay for a few minutes to surprise Aubrey, but the arrangement didn't work out. What *did* work out was the ice cream situation I had in my hand minutes later.

I have known what I would order at Big Gay Ice Cream since 2010, when they were simply a food truck. Their most popular item is "The Salty Pimp" - vanilla soft-serve, infused with dots of dulce de leche, sprinkled heavily with sea salt, and dipped in a hard chocolate shell. Read that again. Now wipe the drool off of your keyboard.

"The Salty Pimp" was everything I've been dreaming about. It was flawless in size and saltiness - another swirl of ice cream or one more grain of salt would've been too much. The Big Gay Ice Cream shop itself is adorable. Unicorns and Golden Girls references abound. You cannot be in a bad mood at this place. They even give you a plastic cone for your cone so your hand doesn't stick for the rest of the night. Perfection.

I can't just undo a twenty-year love affair with The Custard Hut, but I can absolutely dub Big Gay Ice Cream a suitable substitute. Go celebrate a birthday, an 8-mile run, or even just the fact that you haven't said "seriously!?" to a stranger yet all week.


Sunday, June 22, 2014

On the Way to Cape May, I Fell in Love with You

One thing I've always been annoyed by is when people make a face when they hear I'm from New Jersey. I know they're trying to be funny, but it's not exactly a creative joke (which is also why I roll my eyes at most "that's what she said" attempts). The truth is, New Jersey is beautiful - especially where I grew up in Cape May County.

When I go home in the summer, my schedule is almost exactly the same each time and includes two bonfires, two beach days, two outdoor showers, and one trip to Custard Hut. But when I visited a few weekends ago, it was still a little too cold for the beach. Instead, my family took a short drive down to Cape May to explore.

I remember climbing the Cape May Lighthouse in the early '90s but my memory was a little flawed. I recall that it took a long time and was quite grueling but maybe that's because I didn't have these long legs back then. There are 199 steps, which is more than in my 5th floor walk-up, but less than in other climbs I've done recently: 259 in St. Paul's Cathedral in London, 366 in the bell tower in Bruges, and over 400 steps in both the bell tower and the Duomo in Florence. The lighthouse has some impressive views, especially if you luck out with a gorgeous day like we did.

After the lighthouse, we walked along some adorable nature trails into the wetlands and made friends with a swan and some other winged creatures. It reminded me a little of my bird-watching tour in Central Park last year but it was way less intense. Then we took some jumping photos because we are who we are.

From there, we spent some time on Sunset Beach to look for Cape May Diamonds, which is also something I remember from childhood. Cape May Diamonds are pebbles of quartz from the Delaware River that wash up on shore. When polished, they become shiny and clear, but you won't actually be able to start a jewelry scam with these puppies.

We finished up our trip with a late lunch at Lucky Bones Backwater Grill. I thought I was in the mood for seafood until I saw a Muffaletta sandwich on the menu. If you've talked to me in the last five months, you know that this was one of my favorite sandwiches in New Orleans so I could not say no. It was an amazing choice - as was the bacon-wrapped shrimp for an appetizer.

Cape May is a great escape and could be done in a day from New York City if you don't mind being in the car for a while, but you should really stay the whole weekend - especially if you're staying at the best bed & breakfast around - my parents' house.


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Hawaii: A Dolphin-itely Fun Experience

For one of my birthdays in the '90s, my aunt and uncle gifted me a dolphin - as part of an "adopt a dolphin" program. Even though I didn't get to keep the dolphin in our backyard, I thought this was just about the coolest thing ever - even better than Emily's gift from them of a signed photo of the entire cast of "Home Improvement." The desire to be "one with the dolphins" runs in my family - my dad races out to the ocean with his kayak whenever we see them from the shore and comes back with stories as if they were best buds. I was super excited that on our morning boat tour in Kauai, Hawaii with Na Pali Experience, it was almost guaranteed that we'd see dolphins. 

Two tours go out each morning during the season, from May 1 to September 30. Katie and I were on board with Captain Nate and four other passengers. There were another six on the other boat. The boats typically travel together to look for dolphin pods, into sea caves, and to snorkel.

Captain Nate gave us our first breathtaking view of the Na Pali coast, the 15-mile stretch of cliffs on Kauai that you can only reach by boat, foot, or air - the terrain would be far too rough for an actual road. Katie and I had plans to see the coast all three ways - by air the following day in a helicopter and on a short (but grueling) hike the third day. And if you think that's overkill, you've clearly never seen how amazing these cliffs are, the majority of them way higher than the Empire State Building.

We came across dolphins almost immediately and ran into them several times along the way. Nate told us they were spinner dolphins. Since it was early, they were still pretty sleepy and not getting into their normal acrobatics out of the ocean that they were probably doing during the afternoon tour. They were still cool in my book though and we were apparently cool in theirs, too. They swam right along with us for fifteen or twenty minutes while we all almost fell off the boat trying to get some good pics and maybe even to cop a feel.

Although whale season was technically over in Hawaii, Captain Nate said that they caught a glimpse of a whale family the previous day so we kept an eye out for them as well. They'd all pretty much started the migration up to Alaska, but he said sometimes there are whales who keep their babes in the calm waters a little longer to make sure they're strong enough for the journey. We didn't come across any unfortunately but we did get a surprise sea turtle that wasn't as shy as they typically are.

The water was pretty rough while we were out there due to a ground swell, so we didn't get to travel too close to the shore. The waves were huge, around 20 feet, and this sadly meant no snorkeling for us. It *also* meant that we were almost on a rescue mission. A scientist had left his red zodiac boat out in the ocean while he was ashore and it was getting pummeled by waves. He radio'ed to our boat to ask if we could move it into deeper water but as we only had one crew member on board, we weren't able to. We went up to many other boats who weren't on tours asking them if they could help instead. Later, we heard that the boat had washed up to shore and wasn't in great condition. The next day I saw an article about the event. Turns out when the boat washed up, the gas tanks were too full of water to start and the owner had to hike back out instead - which took him 11 hours. I imagine his hike was way more grueling than the one Katie and I went on.

Even without spotting a whale or being able to snorkel, our tour was dolphin-itely a fulfilling and fun experience. I can only hope my "adopt a dolphin" is having as much fun in the ocean as we did.

Mahalo to Na Pali Experience for the special rate. This season, tours are $169/person + tax. Opinions are always my own.

And Mahalo too, Katie, for some of these beautiful shots!


Sunday, June 1, 2014

Washington DC - Secret Agent Woman

I walked into the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, and immediately had to assume a false identity. No longer was I ErFer, a 29-year-old trying to figure life out in NYC - now I was Angelena Falcone, a 21-year-old travel agent from Italy. It was in this first room where the recent film Argo was highlighted, based on the real-life Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. The six U.S. diplomats who had sought refuge with the Canadian embassy were required to assume false identities provided by the CIA. These hostages had to convince Iranian officials that they were in Iran scouting for a science-fiction film. There was, of course, a lot less pressure related to my false identity and I did remember all of the required details throughout my visit.

The first part of the museum, where I spent the majority of my time, teaches you all about how to be a spy with tons of interactive exhibits. "Observe and Analyze" - learn to look for suspicious activity in scenes, which could include two people walking by each other with briefcases, someone sitting on a bench reading a newspaper, and someone sitting in a car for too long without it running. "Disguise" - practice changing the way you appear by squinting your eyes or walking with a pebble in your shoe. You can practice finding caves and airports in Afghanistan using satellite images or even climb through an air vent into the ducts of the museum if that is what you fancy.

The museum also has over 200 spy gadgets, weapons, bugs, cameras, vehicles, and technology on display. Incredible to me were the spy gadgets from back in the day - including a jacket with a button that was really a tiny camera that could be operated through a remote in the pocket and umbrellas that could shoot bullets. I was also interested to see how the size of bugs had changed over the years as technology has moved forward. This also led me to believe that my apartment was bugged for a few days so I was very careful with what I yelled in reaction to the squawking parrot next store to me when I got back to New York. 

All the while you are learning how to be a spy, there are video interviews playing with real-life spies talking about their personal experiences in the special agencies. You can't help but become intrigued with these stories that seem like they are straight from the movies but all actually happened.

The next part of the museum, "The Secret History of History" is all about spies from as far back in the day as the Bible. It gets into secrecy in all forms - codes, the Trojan horse, the Underground Railroad, and the history of the Pigeon as a spy tool.

Another exhibit, "Exquisitely Evil" explores the villains in all of the Bond films over the years. Never have I ever...seen a Bond film, which I know seems a little impossible, but because of that, anyone else in the world would be more intrigued by this exhibit than I was. The exhibit includes 100 artifacts from the movies, so true fans will be sure to get a kick out of it.

In addition to the museum exhibits, there are two unique spy experiences you can have while at this museum. In "Operation Spy," visitors are given a live-action mission to complete within an hour. In "Spy in the City," visitors are on a GPS-guided mission to thwart the bad guys by heading outside to find clues, hide from the enemy, and break some codes. I didn't have time for either unfortunately, but I would be interested in returning to experience these for myself.

After the museum and a (few) drink(s) with a friend, I took a long stroll back to Georgetown where I was staying so that I could go see the monuments. I couldn't help but keep an eye out for people with briefcases and those leaving secret messages around the National Mall as I took some photos during sunset. Although I didn't catch anyone that day, after my training, I think I'm just about ready for the bigtime.

The International Spy Museum is an excellent way to spend a few hours in Washington DC. It is educational, insightful, fun, and perfect for kids or child-like adults - which includes every adult I've ever been in contact with.

Many thanks to The International Spy Museum for hosting my visit. General Admission adult tickets are $20.95. Opinions are always my own.

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