Sunday, December 9, 2012

Weeks in Pictures

Just a few pictures from hiking the last two week(end)s.

Northern HarrierSparrow
Long-billed Curlew in flightRed-tailed Hawk (Fuertes, light morph)
Foggy treeline, Sunrise through fog, Sunrise pine, Northern Harrier, Savannah Sparrow, Long-billed Curlew in flight, Red-tailed Hawk (Fuertes form).

Fire scorched thicket, Love Conquers, Streaked clouds

Still water at Cullinan Park, Blue-winged Teal in flight

Giant Lichen Orbweaver, Long-tailed Skipper, Blackbird arrival at evening, Blackbirds, Blackbirds in last light, Sunset sky, Fiery clouds, Sunset landscape

Friday, December 7, 2012

Galveston Anniversary

Galveston, Oh Galveston.

Kate and I try to do a nice getaway for our anniversary each year. We set the bar pretty high with our first anniversary…spent in a quaint village along the rugged coast of northeastern Spain1. Regardless, we’ve tried to at least get out of town for a day or two and spend some time together…even if it’s in a literal shack in the Hill County.

Evening on the
Waterfront The
Evening on the Cadaques Waterfront, Our hill Country retreat at the surprisingly cozy guest haus named, aptly, “The Shack”.

This year we were so busy and burnt out from work and travel, we settled for a quick jaunt down to Galveston for a stay in a historic hotel and a nice dinner. Galveston’s only about an hour or so from our house in western Houston, and is essentially part of the Houston metroplex, as much as they hate that idea. Galveston and I have a love hate relationship. I love that it is about as historic as this area of Texas gets…lots of old architecture, festivals, Gulf shore beaches, etc.
Mardi Gras 2 -
Mardi Gras in Galveston, Architecture, historical building

The other side of things is that this part of the Gulf is not like the leeward side of Florida with its pristine white sand and deep blue water. Galveston beaches are glorified mud flats2 with turbid milk-chocolate water. Also, Galveston has the oddness of being a touristy area without rational reason to be a tourist there. It’s a home port for cruise ships, but not really a port of call. Lastly, there was a massive hurricane back in Nineteen-aught-somehting-or-other, and that continues to be the focal point of a lot of Galveston conversation. Yes, you used to be a burgeoning port city, yes you used to be bigger than Houston. Ring Ring…it’s 2012…it says “check the scoreboard”. However, it’s the only real populated “beach” area3 on the upper Texas Gulf coast near Houston, so we flock there out of lack of anything better4. It’s not that bad, but it suffers a bit from the general Houston malaise of sprawl, which detracts a bit from its historical charm, and gets very crowded, very quickly, on weekends and holidays.

shiphistoric or
run down
Galveston Seascape, Cruise Ship, Historic or Run Down?

Still, not-Houston continues to trump Houston for anniversary getaways, so off we jaunted down the coast. We checked into the Tremont hotel5 and went for a walk on the Strand. Ostensibly, the Strand is Galveston’s historic/tourist district, but it really amounts to a street of older store buildings that have mostly gone over to tourist shops and eateries. There are some highlights, though, including the old-timey ice-creamery/candy store. The candy is kept in old wooden drawers, and is bountiful. The ice cream side of things echoes to the old soda fountain model. Chocolate+ice cream+historical is a pretty big win for me.

Counter 2012-10-20
Tremont Hotel, Strand Street, Candy counter, Candy Counter display, Old Timey Candy, Ice Cream shop

While shopping in one usual tourist place, I ran across this book about hot guys and cute baby animals. Which, when you think about it, is really, really disturbing. I mean, I can understand how someone might buy a hot guy book. Or a cute animal book. But I always assumed that the underlying motivation for purchasing them would be VERY, VERY different. I am disquieted about the juxtaposition of those two things…

So very disturbing.

We had a nice dinner at Rudy and Paco’s, the best rated restaurant in town6 according to some. Four a touristy place that focuses on chains and gimmicky restaurants, R&P’s was pretty decent. We ended the day with a drink on the rooftop bar of the hotel7.

Tremont Hotel and Arch, Hotel rooftop bar

The next day, we had breakfast at a little local diner, walked around a bit on the Strand again, and went out to the shore to see the new “pleasure pier”8. After a couple successive hurricanes knocked out some old beach pier attractions, one of the big entertainment/dining firms spent bazillions putting in a new pier with rides, and carnival stuff, and such. Unfortunately, you can only really build a pier so long and so wide, or cram so much stuff on it, when you’re building on sand. The result was as mindblowingly weird as it was expensive to get inside. It’s like they took a state fair, and crammed the whole thing on to a short pier. There are a handful of midway games, a couple rides, and the usual food-on-a-stick places. It’s like a highlights reel for an actual amusement park9.

Pleasure Pier, Star Drug Store, Shrimp kisses!, (next 4) Pleasure Pier

We hung around for a short while, even went on one white knuckle roller coaster10, but there really just wasn’t a lot to it so we headed on home. If I had been there for the Galveston experience, I might have been disappointed…but honestly, I was there for a get-out-of-town-be-with-your-wife experience, and that part went just fine

1 To be fair, we were already in Spain for a wedding, so it’s not like we flew there for our anniversary. But still, it counts in the awesome column.

2 The irony being that this draws a good number of shorebirds to the area, which is actually a plus. A plus drowning in a deep deep sea of minuses.

3 Sorry Quintana/Bolivar Peninsula. You don’t count even though your beaches are, on the average, nicer. It’s because you have about 12 people in total. That’s a small gathering, not a City.

4 Also, given there are 4 million or so of us, it only takes a very small portion of the Houston area to decide “meh, we could do worse” to make Galveston a teemingly crowded place.

5 The stately beachfront Galvez was, unfortunately, booked up. The Tremont is in a large historic structure, but had been renovated to some degree inside. Not as impressive as some of the other places in town, but very nicely appointed

6 Which, while it was a very nice place despite a name that, shamefully, I initially assumed was a little low-rent texmex place, doesn’t say an incredible amount. Galveston has nice mid-level dining, but it’s really more tourist oriented, so it’s a bit light on the really fancy side of things. And we all know if there’s anything I am , it’s fancy.

7 Unfortunately, roof-top anything is not the best idea given the pretty strong and consistent on-shore breeze.

8 Which sounds a lot more risqué than it is.

9 Not that you’d know it from the admission, which was steeper than a lot of real amusement parks.

10 On which I think I literally almost died. The only restraint was a somewhat slipper lap bar, not the usual over the shoulder restraints. I had to hold on because it felt like I was slipping out of it at times.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Here we go a Wassailing....Review of Winter Seasonals

Lineup of winter seasonals

Once again, the changing of the “seasons” in the endless heat of Houston is demarcated by the arrival of a new batch of seasonal beers. As I’ve written before, this has become one of my primary ways to mark the changing of the seasons. There is, of course, some degree of melancholy wrapped up in that statement. I miss the shifting landscapes of northern New York, the distinct smells and sights and temperature changesi of the seasons. That being said, marking seasons with beers is not completely without merit. Because, you know, beer.

Christmas lights...after the beer sampling.

For me, winter is not usually the highlight of the seasonal beer cycle. When I lived in colder climes, winter was a time for stouts and porters, dark thick beers for sustenance against the frozen world around me. However, the specifically branded seasonals tend to rotate around highly spiced Christmas ales, stuffed with all manner of Christmas-y estoterica…nutmeg, spruce tips, essence of elf, you name it. These haven’t appealed to me in the past because I like to keep my beer and potpourri separate. But since I’ve started to make a habit of reviewing the seasonal seasonals, and hadn’t really covered winter yet, I was going to have to take one for the team….

Morituri te salutamus.

Over the course of the last month or so I have, in selfless service to you, the readers, loaded up a couple six packs of winter seasonals and slogged my way through the lot of them. In honor of the falling temperatures, I have assigned each a temperature based on relative coolness. Keeping in mind this is being written whistfully from a 78 degree December day in Houston, cooler = better.

IMGP9892-12Alaska Winter Ale – 105 with 100% Humidity. The “flavored with Spruce Tips” was intriguing. After tasting it, I am less intrigued. By which I mean, I have lost faith in humanity. This unfortunate blasphemy against thousands of years of brewing tradition tastes like a freak accident involving a pine air freshener and a bowl of stale froot loops. The sickly sweet malt and fake pine aftertaste was enough to drive a man to drink another beer.
IMGP9892-11Breckenridge Christmas Ale – 75 and Balmy. This is why I'm not excited about winter seasonals. Somewhere under the melange of spice is a beer. Not offensive, just kind of there.
IMGP9892-6Deschuttes Jubelale – 62 with a nip in the air. I want to like Deschuettes more than I do. All of their offerings are ok, but just ultimately forgettable. Their Jubeale continues the trend. Points lost for stupid name.
IMGP9892-3St. Arnold Christmas Ale – 55, not enough for a jacket, but too cold for short sleves. St. Arnolds is one of our more successful local breweries. Some of their stuff is top notch, some of it is so so. This ale splits the difference and settles comfortably into mediocrity.
IMGP9892-4Samuel Adams Winter Lager – 48, a crisp autumn day. This Sam Adams is different from the Boston Lager in that one is called Winter Lager, and the other is called Boston Lager. That's about it. It's supposedly spiced with the usual mix of hoo hah, but it's so subtle, you mostly just get lager. Which is ok, because Sam makes a good lager, but it's missing the “winter”.
IMGP9892-10Newcastle Winter Ale – 36, hey I can see my breath! While Newcastle's offerings have been hot or miss lately, the Winter Ale is a decent entry. It manages to even taste somewhat crisp like cold air. Not quite solid winter fare, but pretty decent.
IMGP9892-5Silly Yak Brewery Cinnamon Bits Christmas Ale – 32, hey, a snowflake! This is an extremely local brewery...small batch homebrew made by a colleague at work. It is not subtle. But if you're going to do spiced, might as well go all in. Just try not to think about the name too much.
IMGP9892-9Anchor Brewing Our Special Ale – 25, baby it's cold outside. Anchor is usually a solid bet, and their Our Special Ale is always decent. This year is a nicely balanced ale with a subtle piney hops taste. Extra points for a great label.
IMGP9892-8Wasatch Winterfest - 0, No we can't turn the heat up, put on another sweater. Wasatch is a great little Utah brewery. I was a bit surprised to find their stuff in the supermarket. Wasatch usually tends to be somewhat irrevent (my first experience was on a trip to Utah where I sampled their Polygamy Porter, whose tag line is “why have just one?”.) This is a really nice ale, with a nice blend of hops with an odd, but enjoyable coolness to it. Good stuff for an evening in front of a roaring fire or, you know, drinking.
IMGP9892-7New Belgium Snow Day – 20 Below, we've gone hypothermic. Fittingly enough, New Belgium's previous, less tasty, winter seasonal was 20 Below. This time, though, they hit the mark. New Belgium is a perennial favorite, and this is no exception.


i Other than Hot and Muggy, Hotter and Muggier, Plumber’s Buttcrack in Mississippi in August, and winter weekend.