Sunday, April 11, 2010

Our Easter weekend road trip - Day 1

It has been more than two months since my last blog post. Unfortunately, the rigours of work have prevented me from writing more (of course, this is just the usual excuse but whatever!). In any case, in Australia, Easter is a massive holiday starting on Good Friday and officially ending on Easter Tuesday, although many Aussies take an extra three days off to make it a whole 10 days! Never before have I enjoyed such a break for Easter so the Wife and I decided to do the Aussie thing and go on a road trip to the beach (albeit with a twist).

We left early on Good Friday morning, around 8 am, to avoid the brunt of holidaygoer traffic, and made our way north across the city centre via the West Gate Bridge. Our destination - Apollo Bay, an idyllic town (look for it on Google Maps) along the famous Great Ocean Road. We passed through the western suburbs of Altona and Werribee, motored on past the second city of Geelong towards Torquay, where the Great Ocean Road officially begins.

When we finally reached Torquay, it was about 11:30 am and both of us were quite hungry since we had had an early breakfast. In addition to stopping at the tourist information centre to pick up relevant maps, we also grabbed a quick bite to eat and plotted our trip for the afternoon. I had wanted to visit the world-famous Bells Beach near Torquay, but we were informed that there was a Rip Curl professional surfing competition on and so access was limited only to ticketholders. Nevertheless, I thought we would just pass by the area at least to see if we could catch a glimpse of the surfing action. However, the entire section of road near Bells Beach was cordoned off and marshalled by event supervisors so all we can do was simply drive through without stopping. Sigh!

In any case, we had begun our journey along the Great Ocean Road and we were both excited about what lay ahead of us. Due to our lunch stop at Torquay, we had fallen back into the midst of the heavy holidaygoer traffic. This became apparent as we made our way through Anglesea where it took us a good 15 mins to get through the town centre. Once we passed Anglesea, the road got really interesting as it hugged the rugged, winding coastline for almost the entire length of our two-day journey. Every now and again, there was a signpost for a scenic lookout where you could stop for a rest and some pictures. We continued our drive down the road till we reached the little town of Airey's Inlet, famous for the Split Point Lighthouse and its scenic views of the Bass Strait. We stopped there to enjoy the lookout, took a few pictures and continued on our way.

Our next major landmark was the Memorial Arch at Eastern View built in honour of all the soldiers who worked to build this stunning road entirely by hand. We took in the history of the place along with a few touristic pictures before resuming our journey. Along the way, we could sense the traffic building up steadily and by the time we reached Lorne, it seemed like half of Melbourne was here! Thankfully, we were not planning to spend a lot of time in the town centre, which was thoroughly overrun with people and cars. We first went to see the Erskine Falls, about 10 km inland from the Great Ocean Road at Lorne. The road to the Falls was sharply undulating, and I had quite a bit of difficulty in getting our tiny Hyundai Getz up a few of the inclines. Rather than talk about the Falls, not remarkably large but very pretty, here is a picture to sum it up.

Then, we drove to another spectacular viewing point, known as Teddy's Lookout, just above the town centre of Lorne. The view from above was absolutely spectacular and we were able to see the winding road along the coastline that lay ahead of us as well as the sparkling blue ocean. At this point, I was a little bit exhausted from all the driving so we took a short break at the main beach at Lorne for some snacks and refreshment before proceeding on towards Apollo Bay.

The journey from Lorne to Apollo Bay took about an hour or so, and it was an absolute thrill to drive along this section of the Great Ocean Road. The roads curved in and out relentlessly with speeds limited to ~ 50 km/h in most sections. And every now and again, we would emerge onto an elevated region offering splendid views of the ocean right next to us. We finally reached Apollo Bay around 5 pm and first, got ourselves checked into our accommodation for the night, a quaint little motel called Surfside Backpackers. Then, we headed back out into town to see the Marriner's Lookout, another elevated viewing area where handgliders normally take off from. We did not see any handgliders that evening since it was already almost dusk, but the view of Apollo Bay from there was quite nice.

Then, we went into the town centre of Apollo Bay to have a walk around and find a place to have dinner. Eventually, we decided on the Apollo Bay Hotel and enjoyed a good dinner by the ocean. It was a tiring day, having travelled nearly 300 km in total, and we went back to our room and crashed early for the night so that we could get an early start again the next day.

The post for Days 2 and 3 will follow soon. You can see pictures of our two-day Great Ocean Road adventure here.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

V-Day weekend in Gippsland!

Last weekend, in an effort to surprise the Wife, I had planned a road trip for us on Saturday (Feb 13) ahead of Valentine's Day (due to weather considerations I might add). She hadn't a clue where we were going until Friday night, when I simply had to tell her so she could look at the maps and navigate us the next morning. She was clearly thrilled, we were going to Gippsland!

We woke up around 7 am and I got ready first and went to pick up our rental car at 8 am from our local Thrifty store. Turned out that we got the same car that we went on our Cape Schanck trip a few months ago. I don't know why but I felt a strange sense of confidence in that I knew the car was good enough to handle the journey and my driving! ;-) Once I got back, we had breakfast and eventually left around 10:30 am.

The first stop was Wonthaggi, a famous old school coal town right on the south-east coast of Victoria. The reason I picked the town was not so much for the State Coal Mine there but for the scenic route that we could take from our home in Clayton. We took the Monash Freeway out of town eventually leading on to the South Gippsland Highway (which passes through some very rural areas south-east of Melbourne) and the Bass Highway (which curves along the gorgeous south Gippsland coast). The view from the highway was spectacular as we were driving up on a cliff that dropped nearly 100-200 m down into the ocean beneath. Passing through the small towns of Grantville, Anderson and Kilcunda, we eventually reached Wonthaggi around 12:30 pm. Since we did not have a detailed map of Wonthaggi with us, we stopped by a tourist information centre to pick up some local area maps and directions to the coal mine.

The State Coal Mine was one of Victoria's main coal mines in the early 20th century, and amazingly, lies just a few kms north of the sea! Fancy digging mines in such a region? It was quite little park and we were able to just walk around and take in the various preserved areas of the mine and the associated history. Unfortunately, we had timed our trip just a little bit off as they were doing underground tours of the mines at 3 pm that afternoon. That could have been interesting but oh well...

Once we finished at the mine, we were quite hungry so we headed back into "downtown" Wonthaggi and grabbed some lunch at a small, but immensely popular Noodle shop. The place barely had seats for 10 but there was a constant, endless stream of people coming in (mostly for takeaways, but we ate there). After lunch, we went back on the road for the short journey to Cape Paterson, the head of the Bunurong Marine and Coastal Park. First up was the Cape Paterson Bay Beach, where we walked down onto the beach and then onto the rocks all the way to edge, about 500 m from the shore. The waves were great, some anglers, some scuba divers, but overall, not too many people on the beach. Words cannot do justice to the beauty of the natural surroundings so here's a video to give you an idea of the waves...

Next, we headed on the gorgeous, shore-hugging Cape Paterson-Inverloch Rd towardsInverloch, stopping at a few lookout points along the way like The Oaks, Twin Reefs, Shack Bay and Eagle's Nest. Eagle's Nest is particularly special because it is not only an amazing rock structure jutting out into the ocean (a la Twelve Apostles along the Great Ocean Road), but also the first location where archaeologists found dinosaur fossils some 100 years ago. And you can walk right up to the fantastic structure and even climb on it if you like!

Then, we finally passed through the town of Inverloch and began our return journey to Melbourne, this time via the highlands of the area known as Prom Country. We made our way through the towns of Leongatha and Korumburra, famous for more coal mines and vineyards aplenty, back onto the South Gippsland Highway which took us back into Melbourne. We finally reached home around 7:30 pm, having stopped to pick up some takeaway dinner along the way, after a thoroughly enjoyable road trip. You can see pictures of our road trip here.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Random thoughts...Feb '10

Some random thoughts that I really could not tie together in a coherent way:

1) The Wife and I watched the Aussie Open live here in Melbourne and on TV. It was pretty amazing! At the end of it all, it was the usual suspects - Serena Willams and Roger Federer - claiming the women's and men's singles titles. I must say, every time I watch Fed play, he amazes me! Only Time can tell whether or not he is the best tennis player ever. You can find some pictures of our day at the Open here and a detailed account of our day here (written by the Wife). Now that it is all over, we will miss the fun of watching tennis every night after dinner.

2) I have started playing soccer again with a group of guys from the Monash Uni Soccer Club. It has been fun to get back to playing the Beautiful Game after a long break. These guys take their trainings very seriously so it has been quite a steep fitness curve for me even though I've been hitting the gym quite regularly. Looking forward to playing a few games soon!

3) Feb is a huge month at work because our building is expected to be 80% complete in 3 weeks, and we start getting instruments delivered starting on the 23rd. So, it is going to be quite a challenging, but exciting, month at work and I am looking forward to getting our labs up and running over the next several months.

4) Since we got back from our vacation, I have totally slipped up on watching EPL matches online. I've only been following my beloved Chelsea through the online scoreboards so I am desperate to watch a few of their upcoming games on the Internet. I am hoping our ISP, IINet, obliges by putting a few Chelsea games on-demand! You guys at IINet hear me? I miss Fox Soccer Channel and Goal TV from my Nashvillian days! :-(

5) We celebrated Australia Day on Jan 26 with an Aussie tradition - a BBQ! Who knew?! It was heartening to know my affiliations with BBQ parties will continue despite moving all the way across the world! ;-)

6) Last week, I spent 45 mins stuck in my office elevator...that was an odd experience! We only have two floors in our office, but since it is still a construction site, we weren't allowed to use the stairs (that has of course changed now!). Nothing remarkable except that it was a hopeless waste of time, and I was fairly warm in that closed elevator! Can't wait for us to have our building completely to ourselves so these stupid restrictions (we also have to wear hard hats, high visibility vests and safety goggles) are lifted!

That's it for now...

Friday, January 29, 2010

Moving to a new office!

As you may already have guessed, I am trying to catch up blog posts that I have slipped up on over the past several weeks. So, here's one that I really ought to have put up a week ago.

My work colleagues and I moved into our brand new, yet still under construction, building a week ago. I say still under construction because only the office space of our new building was "completed" (I'll explain the inverted commas in a second). The builders have yet to complete our massive new laboratory space downstairs and our main reception area, lunch room and main conference room. However, my boss' idea was to move in so that we could place a bit more direct pressure on the builders to complete their work faster!

In any case, I packed up all my office things, computer, folders, papers etc. and we had a removal specialist transport them over to our new building on the 18th of Jan. At the same time, my colleagues and I had to get inducted to work in a construction zone so we had to go through a health & safety briefing for ~ 30 mins before being allowed to enter our offices. We have to wear a hard hat, high visibility jacket and safety goggles whenever we walk to and from our office to the main entrance, that too in a circuitous way! It is a little inconvenient, but I find it quite cool (sometimes!) to have these special rules in place for such a simple task.

As we entered our new offices, we were also informed that we would have no chairs for at least a day, fairly spotty air-conditioning, and occasional power and water outages! Quite a list, isn't it? To be fair, we really enjoyed our moving in day because all we did all day was unpack our boxes, and get our computers set up! The only real uncomfortable bits were not having chairs to sit on and not having clean, drinking water (the water coming out of our taps was very bubbly and smelt of paint!).

The next day, our chairs arrived mid-morning to alleviate our seating discomfort (we were sitting on our empty moving boxes in the interim). Some of my colleagues and I went out shopping for simple kitchen things like a microwave, some mugs and plates, cookies, milk, mineral water etc. and later that afternoon, our office began to resemble a place we would be comfortable working in!

On the 20th, we had our printer/copier/scanner machine delivered and installed, and on the 21st, we got a little fridge so now, we are a fully functional office, except that we have to personally keep refilling our stock of cookies, milk, mineral water etc. It is an ongoing challenge, but it has been quite nice to settle into a spacious, brand new office. Now, we wait with bated breath as the rest of the building slowly gets completed. It is going to be an exciting and challenging time as we get all the labs up and running! You can see just a few pictures of my new office here.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

USA trip Part 4 of 4 - Los Angeles, CA

We arrived in LA at around 8 pm on the 28th. My friend, Raj, came to pick us up from the airport, and we went to have dinner at Veggie Grill, a vegetarian/vegan restaurant that was pretty good. Then, Raj drove us to his parents' house in Rancho Palos Verdes, ~ 30 mins outside downtown LA, on a nice hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. We were tired from our trip, so we just had a brief chat with Raj's parents and sister before crashing for the night.

The next day, we decided to go to Disneyland! Raj had to work, so he took us to get a rental car, for the two days we were going to be in LA, before going to work. We got our rental car, a massive Ford Edge SUV, and got on our way to Anaheim. It took us about 45 mins to get to the Disneyland exit off I-5 but another hour to get from the freeway exit to the parking lot! The crowd of cars trying to get into Disneyland was just absolutely crazy, mainly because it was the holiday season! After a mindnumbingly slow crawl to our parking lot, we got on a shuttle bus to take us to the entrance of Disneyland. There, we had to wait in another line for ~ 20 mins to get our tickets. Then, we were in!

Disneyland Park was sold out for the day, so we had to first go to the California Adventure Park and could only go to Disneyland Park after 7 pm that night. Fortunately, spending time at the Adventure Park was not difficult because the lines for each of the rides was ~ 1 hour!!! Truly a test of patience. We managed to do a few rides like the virtual reality Soarin' over California, the Mickey swinging Gondola and Rushin' River whitewater rafting. It was even a 30 min wait to get food at a little Asian place inside the park! Absolute madness, really! However, despite the frustration of the massive crowds, we really had a fantastic time on the rides. Every one of them was thoroughly enjoyable, my favorite being the rafting ride! I got very wet on that ride, and used this excuse to buy a Disneyland sweatshirt as memorabilia.

Then, once it passed 7 pm, we decided to give up waiting another hour in line for the Hollywood House of Terror and chose to enter Disneyland Park, if only for a couple of hours. Right as we entered Disneyland Park, we realized the crowds at this Park were even more than the one at the Adventure Park! We walked around Main Street for a bit, absorbing all the madness around, and enjoying the colourful lighting that was still up in the spirit of Christmas. We walked through the home of Tarzan which was one of the rare, fairly sparsely packed parts of the park. We considered a few other rides like the Indiana Jones one and the Pirates of the Caribbean one but were put off by the massive waiting times (all in excess of 60 mins!) at these rides. Instead, given that it was already approaching 9 pm and we had about an hour's drive home, we chose to ride the famous Disneyland train around the whole park to get a quick snapshot of the whole park. We rode the train around the park back to the Main St station and decided to make our way out of the park, and caught the shuttle bus back to the parking lot. We grabbed some quick dinner at Subway before driving back home, and went to bed after a thoroughly entertaining but tiring day of sightseeing!

The following day, we went to Universal Studios. We left a bit earlier in the morning compared to the previous day, had a full breakfast at Denny's and began our drive to Universal Studios. At the start of the drive, I realized that I had forgotten my regular glasses at home so I'd have to wear my sunglasses the whole day (and night!). On top of that, it was an overcast day with intermittent showers, so there was really no need for the sunglasses! Oh well...

The drive to Universal Studios was only ~ 30 mins, and there was no real line for parking either. The poor weather might have discouraged some tourists from visiting the Studios that day, but not us! We got our tickets quickly from an automated machine and made our way inside. Based on Raj's advice, we decided to do the Studio Tram tour first up because we were told this was the highlight of the whole area. True to form, there was a good 30 min wait for the tram tour but it most definitely was worth it! The 45 minute tour took us through various outdoor sets used for movies like King Kong, Angels & Demons and Pirates of the Caribbean and TV shows like Desperate Housewives. There were super cool demonstrations from Fast & the Furious, Jaws and other random special effects. There's the one from Fast & Furious at the end of this post!

Afterwards, we went through the various rides on offer at the Studios - The Mummy Returns (a roller-coaster), Jurassic Park (a water ride), Terminator 3D (a 3-D show), Shrek (a 4-D show) among the various rides we enjoyed! The lines, thankfully, were all very manageable this time around so that allowed us to do many more rides than the day before. Finally, we went to a superb water-based special effects show called Waterworld, which involved stuntmen from several TV shows and movies, before heading back home in the evening. We rested for a while, freshened up and then went out with Raj for dinner at a nice Italian restaurant called Frascati. The food was terrific, and it was nostalgic to chat with Raj about our undergraduate days at Florida Tech. That was it for the 30th of Dec.

On New Year's Eve, we wanted to see Hollywood and Santa Monica beach, if possible, before boarding our return flight to Melbourne at 8 pm. So, we had a quick breakfast at home, and left with Raj in two cars to return our rental car. Unfortunately, Raj had some work to do that day as well so we went with him to his office first. There, we dropped him off and took his car to go to Hollywood while he got his work done. We took a little longer than expected to get to Hollywood because we got a little bit lost with our directions on the 110 freeway. Once we reached Hollywood Blvd, we parked the car at the start of the Walk of Fame stretch and started walking. Contrary to my expectations, the start of the Walk of Fame stretch was very see I was expecting the whizz-bang opulence of Hollywood everywhere! However, the neighbourhood clearly got more and more posh as we walked along the street, pausing whenever we saw a star on the pavement we recognized. We passed the Capitol Records tower and the L. Ron Hubbard Life Exhibition en route, both interesting landmarks for completely different reasons.

Then, we reached Kodak Theatre, the home of the Oscars, at the heart of Hollywood. It was quite cool to see the board listing all the Oscar-winning movies by year, and we particularly enjoyed seeing Slumdog Millionaire on there for 2009. Then, we moved on to Sid Grauman's Chinese Theater, in front of which there were lots of artists masquerading as various celebrities and popular movie characters. The Wife took a photo with Spiderman and I took one with MJ! We also took pictures of the hand and footprints of various celebrities in front of the theater. Next, we went inside Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, and took a whole series of pictures with the life-size wax statues of our favorite stars, the highlights being our pictures with President Obama and Brangelina!

By the end of our tour of the wax museum, we were famished so we had some delicious pizza at California Pizza Kitchen in the Kodak Theater complex. By that time, it was already 3 pm so we decided to head back to Raj's office to pick him up and see what we could do next. On our way back, we got stuck in some rather heavy traffic on the freeway so it took us nearly an hour to get back to Raj's office on the north side of town. Since we had to be at the airport by around 5 pm, Raj advised that we should head straight there to avoid getting stuck in rush hour LA traffic. We were a little disappointed to miss out on seeing the beach but it was certainly better to be at the airport early than to have the tension of being late due to traffic.

So, Raj drove us to the airport and we reached there just after 5 pm, and said our thanks and goodbye to Raj. We then met with a cousin of the Wife, who came to LAX airport to meet us along with her in-laws. We spent a few minutes casually chatting with them, after we had checked our bags in. Just like on Christmas day, the crowd at the airport on New Year's Eve was absolutely ridiculous. Clearly, there are hordes of people like us willing to fly on popular holidays to get good deals on airfares! :-) So, we bid farewell from the Wife's cousin and co. and got in line for the security check. Almost an hour later, we made it through to our gate where we waited to board our VAustralia flight back to Melbourne via Sydney. The US trip was over! It was a truly memorable experience and I have just been able to relive the whole trip by means of writing these blog posts.

You can find the complete set of LA pictures here.

USA trip Part 3 of 4 - Nashville, TN

We reached the Music City at around 3:30 pm on Christmas day. Unfortunately, it turned out that our rental car company (Hertz) had run out of cars to rent! I had to spend 15 mins on the phone and with counter staff arguing, eventually getting them to refund me our money. We then got a car from Avis and proceeded to drive to my friends' (Luis & Vivi's) house. Driving through I-40 and 440, I felt somewhat nostalgic and pointed out the route I used to take to Vanderbilt in the past. We reached home in about 20 mins, and were greeted by Luis, Vivi, their son, Niko, and their dog, Jake!

It was nice to see them all after ~ 18 months and we spent the evening chatting about various things. Eventually, we all got a bit hungry so Vivi made a quick, Indian dinner (thanks to ready-to-eat packs!) for us and we called it a day. The next morning, we woke up, got dressed and went to the Pancake Pantry (a Nashville tradition!) for breakfast. As always, it was a 45 min wait before we got seated so we were starving! The Wife ordered some pancakes and I had the Grill Cook's Medley. I don't know if it was just me fantasising, but I thought the quality of the food had dropped a bit since the last time I had been there. Even so, we finished our food quickly, and then went to the Ganesha temple in Bellevue. This was a temple that I used to go to fairly regularly during my Ph.D. days in Nashville, and it had not changed one bit...even most of the priests were still the same!

For a while now on this trip, the Wife had been craving some South Indian food, so after our temple visit, we went Woodlands, a vegetarian restaurant that was especially renowned for its South Indian fare. Both of us had dosas there - the Wife a paneer dosa and I had a rava masala dosa, both of which were delicious! The Wife then wanted to do some shopping so we went to the Green Hills Mall where we spent the rest of the afternoon just browsing around various stores. The Mall had expanded a bit since I had been there last so there was some novelty there for me as well. As proof of her shopping exploits, the Wife bought a turtleneck sweater on sale there. Then, we headed home for a short rest and to freshen up as we had made plans to meet some of my Nashvillian friends at Bosco's for dinner.

We spent some time chatting with Vivi, and playing with Niko and Jake before heading out to Bosco's, a favorite haunt of mine during my Nashville days. We met with Petra, Archana, Roberto and Rey, in addition to Luis, Vivi and Niko, there. Just like ol' times! It was a very enjoyable night and we finally made it back home close to midnight, exhausted....AGAIN! ;-)

For the 27th, Petra and Paula had organised a party at their house in honour of our visit. That was to be the main event of our trip! ;-) That morning, we woke up and had some Subway sandwiches for breakfast, and then went for a quickfire tour around Nashville. First, I took the Wife down Nolensville Road and showed her the old apartment that I used live in. Then, we went to Vanderbilt and walked around campus as I pointed out important areas and buildings. We were lucky enough that the Physics building was open so I was able to show the Wife my old office and lab!

Then, we went to downtown Nashville and drove around for a while, stopping by the Cumberland River for some pictures of the river and LP Field (the home of the NFL's Tennessee Titans!). Soon, it was time to head over to Petra and Paula's, and we had an
awesome time there meeting all the friends who were there for dinner the night before and Ines, Antonio and their son, Adrian. Amidst chatting, eating some munchies, enjoying a fondue dinner, and eventually playing some Guitar Hero on their PS3, time flew by and we got home close to midnight and went to bed immediately.

The next day (the 28th), we had planned a brunch with friends especially because a few of them were only returning back to Nashville early that day or late the night before, and wanted to meet with us. So, we woke up, got dressed, had some breakfast at home with Luis and Niko, packed our bags and headed to the Cheesecake Factory for brunch with friends. We got to meet Kathy, her fiancee, Ray, Fiona, Petra and Paula there and had some delicious, although fattening food for brunch! The Wife had some pizza, I had spicy pasta and we shared chocolate cake for dessert. The portions were huge as always so we boxed some of everything for consumption later in LA. Then, we bid adieu to all friends and drove back to Nashville airport, returned our rental car and boarded our flight to LA, the final stop of our marathon trip around the US!

You can see the complete pictures of our Nashville trip here.

USA trip Part 2 of 4 - Madison, WI

First off, apologies for the long delay in getting out Part 2, but such are the constraints of the work week. Back to the story...we left Chicago around 11 am on a bus from O'Hare airport to Memorial Union University of Wisconsin, Madison. The bus trip was fairly comfortable and took us through the snow-covered towns of Rockford, South Benoit and Janesville en route to Madison in about 3 hours. Along the way, I had called Enterprise and arranged for them to pick us up at the Memorial Union bus stop so we got picked up there and went to their rental office ~ 20 mins away to pick up and sign for our rental car. Thus began my first-ever experience of driving in extreme snow conditions.

I was clearly nervous, despite having rented a full-size car with traction control and GPS. So, we headed out slowly from the Enterprise rental office towards my sister's place. It was also the first time I had ever used a GPS device while driving so it took me a little while to get adjusted to the system's prompts (I always feel more comfortable when I know the whole route instead of just the next turn), and I slowly developed more trust in the system's directional accuracy. We stopped by a Target first to pick up some nibbles before heading over to my sister's apartment.

It was simply wonderful to meet my sister, the baby (see right!), and my mother since the last time I had seen them was at my wedding. We were quite tired and hungry so we had lunch (mum's food...yay!) immediately before sitting around and chatting with them and my sister's mother-in-law (yes, there were a lot of people who wanted to see the baby! ;-)) Later in the evening, my brother-in-law returned from work and took us for a short ride to see some outdoor Christmas lighting. It was beautiful stuff, but I was a little uncomfortable because it was so darn cold outside!!! Once we got back home, we decided to pack some dinner that my mother had made and head out to check in to our hotel. It was just a short 5 min drive to our hotel, but it was quite exciting and challenging at night in snowy conditions!

Once we checked into our room, we were simply exhausted. We just had dinner, while watching our favorite TV channel du jour, the Weather Channel, and then just called it a day. The next day, we wanted to go and see Cave of the Mounds, fascinating limestone caves that we had previously read about on the Internet. So, we left our hotel after breakfast, armed with the security of the GPS in our car, to make the ~ 25 mile trip to Blue Mounds, WI. The route suggested by the GPS was completely different to the one I had got from the customer service staff at the Cave when I had called ahead of our trip. And because the GPS route was taking us through some ultra-rural parts of WI, I was a little nervous that we may get lost in the middle of nowhere! However, I decided to trust the GPS because it had the correct final destination and was indicating the correct travel time required (~ 30 mins). After about 20 mins of driving along various snow-covered county roads, we finally hit the freeway (Route 151/18)! And then it was just 5 mins till we got to the caves! Phew!

Since there were no scheduled visitor tours at that time, we had pre-arranged to join a group of schoolchildren on their tour of the caves. Needless to say, there was a lot of commotion during our tour, thanks to restless, playful kids! However, the caves themselves were spectacular! We hiked through a section of winding limestone caves, enjoying underground beds of water, stalagmites and stalactites along the way.

After our tour, we watched a short video about the history and significance of the caves. Apparently, they were found by accident while miners were blasting off limestone in 1939. You can read more about the caves on their website. Then, we were drove back to my sister's place for lunch, and spent the afternoon just hanging out with family and the cute baby. That evening, when my brother-in-law returned from work, he informed us that there was going to be a major snowstorm the following day (the 24th) and so we ought to leave early for Chicago to catch our flights. My sister and the baby were flying to Singapore with my mother for a vacation, and the Wife and I were also flying to Nashville a few hours later on the 25th. So, we decided to leave Madison in the afternoon of the 24th, spend the night at a Chicago airport hotel (the same one we had previously been in!) and catch our respective flights in the morning. It turned out that we missed the brunt of the snowstorm, but we did experience one for a brief period. Words cannot adequately describe the feeling, so there's a short video clip at the end of this post taken at the entrance of our hotel, the night of the 24th.

Driving back to the hotel that evening from my sister's place was a real challenge. I had to fill up gas as well along the way, and nearly froze as the snow was coming down sideways! The 5 min ride to the hotel took 20 mins that night and we went to bed hoping we would be able to make it safely to Chicago the following day. The next morning we had breakfast, then went to pick up my mother who travelled by bus with us to Chicago while my sister, the baby, brother-in-law, and his mother travelled by car. Then, we went to return our rental car at Enterprise, but it took us a good 10 mins in the freezing snow to figure out where to drop off the keys since the office was closed and the drop-off box was not obvious! We took a taxi back to the hotel, packed up all our things and left for the Memorial Union bus stop to hop on the return bus ride to Chicago.

Thankfully, all went well, and we reached Chicago that evening, checked into our hotel, had dinner and slept. We had made it Chicago safely, now our flights just had to be on time the next morning! And they were! We went to the airport first thing in the morning to help my sister, the baby and my mother check in and bade them farewell. Then, we headed back to the hotel to have some breakfast before packing our bags and returning to the airport for our flight to Nashville. At the airport, we met with the Wife's mother's cousins and their family for a brief chat. I was a little surprised at the massive crowds at the airport on Christmas day, so we had to say goodbye to them soon to get through the security lines but at least everything went smoothly and we were soon on our way to Music City USA!

You can see the complete pictures of our Madison trip here.