Friday, August 29, 2014

Summer at Lake Tahoe

Hiking, kayaking, star gazing? Bring it on!

The gang booked a 3-bedroom mountain condo at Northstar resort over the weekend to celebrate Vic and Jo's birthdays (and also of little Z and Mama Wendy's which fall almost in the same week). It was the first time we visited Lake Tahoe in summer. It was also the first time we squeezed everybody under one roof for an overnight trip.

Day 1- Of fainting spells and howling wolves? 

We split into two cars for the journey on Saturday morning. After a smooth 4-hour drive from the Bay Area, we arrived at Northstar at 12.30pm. Our condo was ready for check in. Best of all, the reservation came with complimentary gondola lifts and roller skates for two among other discounts.

After dropping our bags at the Silver Strike mountain condo, we called for a shuttle service to the Village. We purchased four more sets of gondola lift plus lunch combo. At $21 per pax inclusive of a $13 voucher for lunch at Downhill Grille, it was not too bad a deal. Little Z got to ride for free since he's below five.

Then into the gondola we went!

The summer weather was fabulous, and it was interesting to see a snowless ski resort. Up at mid-level, we saw a bunch of mountain bikers making their way down the mountain. It was quieter than we thought, but the shuttle driver told us we were in between two busy weekends. There would be droves of visitors for the Labor Day weekend.

Halfway through our lunch at Downhill Grille, Jo and Wendy observed that Panda looked a little pale. He said he felt breathless after walking up the flight of stairs from the rest room.

For information, Panda often claimed he has mountain sickness, but I always dismissed it as his on-going paranoia. I mean, we went up a 14,000-ft mountain in Colorado and he was fine. Lake Tahoe is not that high, right?

After filling our tummies, we went up the Vista Express. The view was gorgeous under sunny skies. Vic and I were debating where the green runs were; the ski slopes looked less threatening without their white layers.

We headed off to the Tahoe Trail immediately after alighting. It was a tranquil afternoon. Although the Tahoe Trail is a multi-use trail, we didn't see or hear any bikers along this path.

As we hiked further in, the trail started to narrow and rise. 

All this time, Panda was uncharacteristically quiet. I wondered if he was tired or grouchy over our lunch order, since I had wanted to order something else to share. He walked silently behind me while the rest chatted.

Then suddenly...

"Shi, I really cannot walk anymore."

I heard Jo's "Oh no!" the same time I turned and saw Panda toppling backwards. Jo rushed forward to support him while shouting for Vic to help.

Panda must be playing a prank on me for not being serious about his 'mountain sickness', I thought. So I looped his arms around me and slapped his face hard several times.


He was still in a limp position. Through his shades, I saw his eyes rolled back into his head. His lips were white and he was swaying. I hit him harder, realizing the seriousness of the issue and trying to suppress my own mounting panic.

Please wake up! 

Until that moment, I have never thought that Panda might die.

Somewhere through the commotion, Wendy pushed a candy in his mouth. I asked Lawrence whether he could run back to the lift station for help.

As Lawrence sprinted away, Panda slowly regained conscious. The sweet seemed to work. We managed to get him to sit down and gave him some water to drink. The first thing I wanted to say was how sorry I was for not taking him seriously. I had brushed aside his remarks on the shortness of breathe, and I felt ashamed of myself.

Some kind of wife I am.

Afterwards, Panda told us he started feeling unwell at Downhill Grille. He barely had time to recover from the Vista Express ride before we began to hike. The more he walked, the less air he could take in. The last thing he remembered was me commenting on some animal sighting before losing conscious. He only woke up when he felt a sweet in his mouth.

We made him eat more candies when we got back to mid-mountain. I was a little shaken but relieved to see he was well enough to walk. After a short rest, he agreed to go up the Zephyr Express with us. He seemed to have recovered from his fainting episode well, but we didn't want to take the risk and do another hike without knowing what triggered the fainting.

[P/S: At our post-Tahoe visit to the doctor, we were advised not to feed the fainted person anything as it might choke him, but to lay him down and lift his legs instead. That would ensure more blood flow to the brain. Panda has also scheduled a visit to the cardiologist.] 

Atop the Zephry Express, we spotted a wedding in progress. It was such a perfect place to tie the knot - rustic outdoor setting, beautiful weather... and the bride has chosen the perfect color theme of grey and tiffany green. All of us were joking that we should renew our wedding vows here.

We didn't stay long at Zephry because it was nearly 4pm and we still wanted to roller skate at the Village. I had no idea why we had to take the gondola instead of chair lifts down the Zephry Express, but apparently it is a policy. Photo opportunity for us, since it was a bigger gondola that could fit all seven of us!

At the Village, Vic, Jo and I took turns roller skating while the rest lounged around the sofas. I am much better on roller blades than skates; I kept wanting to trip over myself. Vic tried to teach me forward crossover but I totally sucked at it. Fell flat on my butt.

Dinner was prepared by the housewives as well as Vic who was the master chef for boiling spaghetti. The 3-bedroom, 3-storey mountain condo fit all of us in comfortably. I love the open kitchen, the vaulted ceilings, and the loft where the master bedroom is. It was easy shouting up and down the house and across the dining area.

And then dinner was ready! Check out remnants of Panda and Vic's bananagrams game. After dinner, we played that and Guess the Word SG well past midnight. My stomach hurt from laughing too hard. And we made such a din that it was a wonder the neighbors didn't come knocking on our door.

At around 10pm we ventured out to star gaze. It was pitch dark except for a couple of street lamps. We had switched off our torch lights for better viewing, and I was having fun tracing constellations in the night sky with my free version of SkyView.

Then all of a sudden, we heard something. It was enough to stop all our conversations.


That was the first thought.

It was a long and steady howl echoing through the silence of the night. I have never heard a howl like this before, not in real life. It was exciting yet frightening, because it sounded like it came from within the compound.

Too near.

"I think we better head back." 

All agreed. I was still wide-eyed.

But better to be in the safety of the house playing bananagrams than being supper for wildlife.

Day 2- Crystal clear waters and that quaint little town 

The next day, we got up bright and early to kayak at Lake Tahoe. We rented the equipment from Tahoe Paddle & Oar at Kings Beach. I had called a week before to make a reservation. The staff was pretty helpful, and he advised us to come in the morning when the water would be calmer.

I have been to Tahoe countless times before, but have never actually gone inside Lake Tahoe. I was surprised to find how clear the water is. We could still see the bottom of the lake as we paddled out deeper. A big relief for me that I didn't see any yikey, slimy fish.

The water was also still enough for us to wiggle around, sit on one side of the kayak, and dip our feet in. It was hard to imagine that the lake's maximum depth is 1,645 feet. We were kayaking in one of the deepest lakes in the world.

We requested for a late check-out, so we had plenty of time to wash up before heading home. We stopped by Downtown Truckee for a coffee break before the return journey. This charming little town has a bunch of pretty boutiques and small cafes. It reminded me of Carmel-by-the-Sea at Monterey, but less fancy.

We didn't have time to walk the entire area, but I would check it out again if I were to come back to North Lake Tahoe for winter.

End notes- Where do we go from here?

The trip was meant to celebrate Vic and Jo's birthday, but I was having so much fun that I felt a little sad when the trip ended. I was telling Wendy we should have done this a long time ago. Now, I can only hope that they will have more of such trips next year before it is their turn to head home. I will be on standby to drool at all the photo updates.

... Or maybe not yet.

RV rentals, anyone?

Friday, August 22, 2014

Paddle boating at Shoreline Lake

My life is full of activities these days, and I meant it in a good way! This week, Flora, our Mountain View associate, suggested going to Shoreline Lake for some water fun.

The FC Housewives Club had planned to do a strawberry U-pick at Swanton this week, like what we did last summer. But the recent, unprecedented drought in California foiled our plans. We were racking our brains, thinking of what to do, when help came in the form of paddle boats!

Mountain View's Shoreline Lake must be one of the best kept secrets. It is in some ways equivalent to San Mateo's Coyote Point, but cleaner and more scenic. The wind is not as strong as Coyote Point, a big plus point for ladies who don't want to end up like Medusa on a bad hair day.

Parking was easy to find since it was mid-week. We found water crafts for rental beside the cafe (price list here). In addition to pedal boats, we had a choice of canoes, kayaks and rowboats. There are also windsurfing and sailboat equipment for rent. 

Apparently, if you don't feel like heading out to the waters, there are bicycles for rent too. 

So spoilt for choice!

On this day, a lot of pre-school teachers were taking children out for a fun day at the lake. We saw youths having camps, families having picnics, young adults kayaking and standup paddle-boarding. Even the nearby Google and Chrome folks were having their team building activity at the lake. 

Everyone was taking advantage of that last bit of summer.

We opted for an hour of paddle boating after checking with the rental person that we could fit all five of us onboard, including little Z. We thought it was a great idea to have all five persons squeeze onto the teeny weeny metallic blue paddle boat. 

Nobody warned us about the potential hazards of having a cumulated weight of 230kg in one boat. A boat where only two pairs of slender legs can paddle each time.

Look at our happy, unsuspecting faces smiling for the camera as we donned our life jacket. 

And off we go!

Paddle, paddle, paddle... 

Paddle, paddle, paddle... 

And paddle, paddle, paddle.... 





Half an hour later, we were wheezing like asthma patients, and not even a quarter past the lake. 

Maybe it was the current. Maybe it was the wind. Maybe it was because we kept spinning round and round the same spot. 

Either way, it was not a bright idea to have all five of us on the same boat. We realized it only when we saw how much faster other boaters were moving. 

They must be laughing at how silly we looked.


Miraculously, we managed to make our way back to the shore without popping our knee caps. Little Z, who was in charge of navigating the boat, was the only one with strength left to cycle and play at the nearby playground after our morning paddle boat endeavor. 

The rest of the aunties were ready to peng san (faint).

We retreated to the Lakeside CafĂ© to nurse our wobbly knees and rumbling tummies after that. I was still thinking if we should try the 4-person canoe. 

Hey, our knees are gone but we still have hands and arms, no?  

Too bad it was almost three by the time we finished lunch, and we had to start on our return journey to beat the office traffic.

Next time, definitely!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Experiencing Portland

We are back from a 3D2N weekend trip to Portland!

This is part of a series of trips we will be making as Panda clears his leave to prepare for our return home. We are definitely maximizing the rest of our US stay.

Day 1- Experiencing Local

Portland is known for its public transport system. For this trip, we decided not to rent a car and to get around with TriMet. For five bucks a day, we can hop on to buses, light rail and streetcars for unlimited rides. We stayed at Hyatt (again!) at Cascade Station - an easy two-stop ride from the airport. Plenty of room for people to load their luggage.

First stop was the Portland Saturday Market. Alighted at Skidmore Fountain Station and there we were, at Bangkok's Chatuchak?! Music, street food, arts and clothing stalls. No kidding - it's like we have flown back to Asia.

Of course, the prices were nothing compared to Asia. We didn't buy anything at the weekend market, awesome though some of the clothes and accessories were. We still had a blast enjoying the laid back atmosphere, browsing shops and taking in the sweet aroma of street food.

A short distance away from the Saturday Market is the famous Voodoo Donuts. The line was so crazy that we had to pause and rethink whether we really want to try them that badly. Out of curiosity, I asked an elderly couple sitting under the purple umbrellas if the donuts were that fantastic. "It's... different," the old man said. Nah, not enough for us to queue under the hot sun.

Noticed I said 'a short distance' because it's almost a straight line's walk from the Saturday Market on SW Ankeny Street. But we could still get ourselves lost, because yours truly read NW 3rd Ave instead of SW 3rd Ave. Made a huge detour because of that.

Argh. I need new glasses. 

After stopping at a nearby cafe to refuel, we hopped back on to the MAX rail and stopped at downtown. Downtown Portland has plenty of light rail stops and is pretty walkable. There were also loads of cyclists sharing the road with other vehicles - it truly is a cyclists' heaven!

(Side note: I had wanted to do a beer tour on bicycle, but Panda wasn't interested in alcohol. How sadddd...)

What I loved about Downtown Portland was the ubiquitous food carts. Street food rocks because they form such a colorful part of any local culture. And they normally taste better than restaurant food, in my opinion.

There are carts and pods located all around selling a huge variety of food, but the biggest can be found between SW Alder St/SW Washington St and 9th Ave/10th Ave. It is supposed to be the largest concentration of street food in US. Yummers!

The only drawback is limited seating. Not all food carts come with customer seating. We bought food from a Thai food cart and had to sit on a weathered public beach bespattered with suspected bird poop. Tried not to think about it as we ate!

Our last stop for Day 1 was Powell's City of Books. There is no direct MAX rail and I gave up trying to follow the directions here and just walk six blocks down. Seriously, why ain't the light rail and street cars more integrated? 

Once inside the bookstore, all tiredness were forgotten. I love everything about this bookstore, from its chic modern facade to the endless floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with books. The fact that it sells (and buys) old books gives it a unique vibe. Like a non-pretentious, down-to-earth person who appreciates the value of a well-read worn out book. 

I had a whale of a time getting lost in the ginormous bookstore, weaving in and out of the different color coded rooms, spending some quiet moments at one of the language aisles. There are handwritten staff pick notes everywhere. Oh, that human touch.
Love it! 

Day 2- Experiencing Nature

We gave in to our tired, old feet's demand and rented a car for Day 2. I was eager to do the Columbia River Gorge and Mt Hood loop because both places are sufficiently near for a day trip. The Painted Hills and Crater Lake look lovely but at four hours away, they would be too far out a drive.

We reached Vista House at Crown Point after a 30-min drive from Portland. This observatory looks small on the exterior but it has a surprisingly spacious interior. Love the vaulted ceilings within the dome. The bottom floor of this structure houses a gift shop and the rest rooms, while the upper deck offers spectacular views of the gorge. 

A pity that we didn't stop by the Portland Women's Forum viewpoint along the Historic Columbia River Highway to capture this gorgeous little house against the river backdrop.

A small note: On our way to the Vista House, we saw lines of cars parked along the road. But on this late Sunday morning, we found a lot in the car park within minutes of reaching. I supposed traffic moves pretty fast for this observatory. It was a good thing we checked the car park before trying to park along the road.

We headed east to start our journey of the waterfalls. There are 27 waterfalls from Vista House to Hood River, where we planned to stop for a late lunch.

I had a hunch that we were probably overestimating our time management abilities, even if we wouldn't be visiting every waterfall. Nature is something on which I wouldn't want to do a touch-and-go!

First stop was the Latourell Falls. We went up a short slope to get a view of this 249-ft tall cascade. Then we spotted a bridge near the base of the falls, and overheard some lady telling her kid that they could get inside the water.

We could? Really? Sped back to the car to change into slippers.

When we got down to the bridge, there were already one or two brave souls who had climbed down the muddy banks and were making their way to the base.

The climb was harder than I thought. Flip flops ain't invented for this kind of adventures and the water splashes got more powerful as we neared the base. I was soaked almost to my undergarments, even though I wasn't even THAT close to the base of the falls yet. 

Yes, that's a calm Panda with his quick dry gear, and a delirious me with my burberry scarf. I was in a roaring thunderstorm.

We had to wash off all the mud after that. In retrospect, it was a lucky thing we didn't slip and fall into the water or mud. The rocks were quite slimy and we could have broken an ankle. 

But would I do it ever again? Yes.

In comparison, our visit to the Bridal Veil Falls was less eventful. After a short hike from the car park with our still-damp butts, we reached this 118-ft cascade. I wished I had the courage to climb up the boulder and jumped into the water like what these two youngsters were doing.

But after experiencing the water temperature at the previous fall, and recalling that we are well into our 30s, we made the wise decision not to.

The fun belongs to the younger generations.

Further down the road, after a massive jam and parking into the muddiest roadside lot, we arrived at the picturesque Multnomah Falls. This is easily one of the most popular falls in the area, judging by the horde of tourists.

We would have to climb one mile up a steep slope to get to the top of the falls. By then, Panda was getting a little tired of looking at waterfalls. "They all look the same after a while," he sulked.

Nevertheless, he acceded to my request to at least go up the bridge. Yay!

The bridge is as narrow as it seems. It was hard taking selfies, because you could barely reach out your hand without blocking the path of other visitors. And you wouldn't want to be the one piling up traffic on this tiny bridge.

Still, it felt awesome to be standing there observing the cascading falls. We waved to the folks down below and did some silly poses in hope of photo bombing someone. We never learned to act like our age, huh?

At the base of the falls is the Multnomah Falls Lodge offering visitors some food and rest. There's a restaurant and a gift shop inside this quaint little building. We were pretty hungry by then, having survived mostly on tidbits and energy bars for most of our journey. But we were still thinking if we should soldier on to Hood River and Mt Hood.

It was already 3pm.

Poor Panda was tired, hungry, and nauseated from all the waterfalls.

Back in our car, we decided we should make the best out of our car rental and head to a premium outlet. Mt Hood has been passed up in favor of tax-free shopping!

There were so many bad yelp reviews on the nearby Columbia Gorge Premium Outlets that we decided to drive down to Woodburn. It took us almost an hour to reach but it was worth it. Panda and I agreed, unanimously and unequivocally, that Woodburn Premium Outlets is one of the best outlets that we have visited.

Clean toilets, a great variety of stores, sheltered walkways.

It's even better than Livermore.

We barely had two hours to shop because it was a Sunday and stores close at 7pm. We only hit two stores, North Face and Oakley, but we left happy as a bird.

Say yay to tax-free shopping!

Day 3- Experiencing Pearl District (or not)

We wound down on our last day with some light shopping at the Cascade Station Mall opposite our hotel.

Panda, the avid NBA fan, always visits basketball stadiums when we travel. So after checking out in the morning, we took the MAX rail to Rose Quarter/Moda Center, home of the Portland Trail Blazers.

I had hoped to visit the Pearl District before flying back in the evening. But again, I found myself getting lost. I kept trying to search online for the nearest MAX rail stop, without realizing only street cars go to Pearl District (duh!).

I had both the TriMet Tickets app and PDX Bus app on my phone. I should have followed this map, make a switch to street cars along Galleria/SW 10th St, then alight at NW Northrup St.

It was the second time I was stumped by Portland's public transport. On the first day, I had happily thought I could find return stations opposite from where I alight. Not true when you are at Downtown Portland. You have to go to the next block to find the returning station.

And if you want to switch to street cars, you have to walk a little. They don't use the same tracks as MAX rail.

So after getting off at the wrong stop and strolling around aimlessly, with me feeling apologetic for the lack of directions (I'm normally the one in charge of navigation), we decided to walk towards Powell's again.

It's part of Pearl District, yes?

Along the way, we check out locally designed shops. Panda got himself a 22-litre camo roll top bag from Poler Outdoor Stuff, a cool hipster shop for outdoor gear.

The happy boy used it immediately after purchase. The front buckle came with a built-in whistle, which he kept blowing as he walked. Boys will always be boys!

We only had an hour or so before we needed to return to the hotel to collect our luggage for departure. So we abandoned our plans to explore the Pearl District, and headed back downtown where the MAX lines are. 

Back at Downtown Portland, we continued checking out shops and eateries... 

... before finally deciding on this hole-in-a-wall cafe called Brunch Box. They have a pretty good yelp review on their food cart at SW 5th Ave and Stark St. Panda ordered a bootlegger, loaded fries (bacon and cheese) and a chocolate milkshake to share. Paid happy hour prices: $12.

I must say all the burgers in their menu look monstrously big and sinful to me. How do people finish eating them? Thank God when the bootlegger came, it was of a decent size and was quite yummy.

But I was still happiest with the milkshake.

Panda was saying he might want to fly to Portland for Thanksgiving to enjoy all the tax-free shopping. We have gone crazy in the last two Thanksgiving sale, going home only at 4am.

This will be the last Thanksgiving sale before we head home. Will we pull the craziest stunt ever - fly in, shop all night, fly out?

We shall see!

So long for now, Portland.