Thursday, August 29, 2019

Puerto Vallarta 2019: Pictures, Dining Guide Update, and Timeshares

The summer of 2019 is at its end, which means it’s time to take a break from all my posts about 2018's summer vacation trip to write something about this summer’s vacation trip: Puerto Vallarta. Puerto Vallarta (which itself is located in the Jalisco state, although a lot of the newer resort development is occurring in the Nayarit state directly to the north) is my favorite Mexican vacation spot, which makes it somewhat surprising that this was my first trip there in over a decade.

First, Some Pictures:

The Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe features a wrought-iron crown atop its bell tower. It is located in the center of the city; it is an easily-recognizable landmark as well as a symbol of Puerto Vallarta.

Another symbol of Puerto Vallarta is the Seahorse Monument, or "El Caballito," located along the seawall. The painted letters are a more recent addition.

A view of the water from the Puerto Vallarta seawall, or "Malecón." Puerto Vallarta sits at the eastern end of Banderas Bay, which is part of the Pacific Ocean. That means the sunsets are awesome.

A view of Puerto Vallarta's hillsides from our waterfront timeshare. In addition to being a resort, Puerto Vallarta is also a top retirement destination. Some of those properties on the hills sell to American expats at rather substantial prices.

A view of Puerto Vallarta from the sea, featuring the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe to the right. Puerto Vallarta occupies a relatively narrow bit of land between the sea and the mountains, and the dramatic topography is part of the city's charm.

As I said in a previous picture, Puerto Vallarta's location on the east end of Banderas Bay means that it is the perfect Pacific sunset-watching locale. I took this picture from the balcony of my timeshare, and I waited until the sailboat was in the perfect spot. Sometimes I'm a decent photographer.

Another view of Puerto Vallarta from the sea. The construction of high-rise hotels and timeshares continues apace, especially on the north side of the city.

While Corinne, Kirby and I were in Vallarta, we spent the week eating, drinking, sleeping, soaking in the pool, sitting on the beach, and looking at sunsets. In other words, we had an ideal vacation.

Updated Puerto Vallarta Dining Guide:
Back in 2007, I wrote about my impressions of Puerto Vallarta restaurants that I enjoyed (or thought were overrated). Some of the restaurants I listed in that post are gone, others have moved, others have changed names. I've decided to update and distill my Puerto Vallarta restaurant list to five establishments that have stood the test of time (I’ve eaten at each of them at least twice) and are, in my opinion, among the most reliable and highest-quality dining experiences in Puerto Vallarta. This is not to say that any of these five places are the "best" restaurants in PVR, but you can't go wrong by eating at any of them.
Rio Grande (Av. Mexico 1175): They serve all kinds of dishes here, but seafood is their specialty (especially red snapper!). Good service and reasonable prices.
La Bodguita del Medio (Paseo Díaz Ordaz 858): The Puerto Vallarta location of this Havana-inspired restaurant has been a local fixture for many years. They have all your Cuban favorites: sandwiches, pork, rice, black beans, plantains and - yes - amazing mojitos. They have live music in the evening, so it can get loud. They sell cuban cigars, too.
The Pancake House (Basilo Badillo 289): This place was called Memo’s Pancake House at one point. It’s reverted to a more generic name, but it's just a good as I remembered. You’re going to have trouble finishing the stacks of big, fluffy pancakes that come in a variety of preparations, such as the “Black Forest” pancakes with chocolate and strawberries topped with whipped cream. They also have waffles, omelets, and Mexican breakfast specialties such as heuvos rancheros, huevos Mexicana, or Chilaquiles. Open until 2 pm.
El Andariego (Av. Mexico 1358): Good food, good service, and you get to sample their in-house tequila. What's not to like? Their murals are pretty cool, too.
The Blue Shrimp (Olas Altas 336): Since my last trip, this establishment has moved to a new location along the beachfront in the Zona Romantica (they've also opened a second location in Nueva Vallarta). They still offer shrimp prepared a variety of ways, as well as excellent cocktails and appetizers. This is not the cheapest place to eat in town, but you will not leave hungry.
Honorable Mention: pretty much any street taco stand. You obviously can’t go wrong if you eat where the locals eat, and there's just nothing better than a plate of authentic tacos al pastor. Two of my favorites are Tacos el Punto (Av. Mexico 1225) and El Carboncito (Calle Honduras 127); these are around the corner from each other and I'm familiar with them because they are close to my timeshare. Just be aware that many of these places don’t speak much English or accept anything other than cash.
I’ve also heard good things about El Barracuda, but I didn’t get a chance to eat there this time around (which is a shame because it was literally just down the street from my small timeshare). Guess that just means that I’ll go back.
Be aware that many restaurants will have people out in front of them, wielding menus and trying to get you to eat there as you walk by with the promise of a special drink or free appetizer. This practice can be annoying, but does not necessarily suggest anything about the quality of the restaurant (e.g. "that place is so bad that they have to beg people to eat there!"). It is simply a function of intense competition for tourist pesos in a city with a lot of restaurants. (Truth be told, I am convinced that you really have to try to find bad food in Puerto Vallarta.)

This practice is especially prevalent along the Malecón (which they improved since the last time I was there; what used to be a busy street along the waterfront is now a wide pedestrian promenade). The guy in front of El Jardin de Pancho Villa (Paseo Díaz Ordaz 732) discovered we were from Texas (he said he grew up in east Austin) and harangued us every day until we finally relented and ate there. It turned out to be a good place to stop for nachos and margaritas, which were pretty strong for their price. However, there was another establishment further down the seawall (towards the church and town square) that we ate at after being given a voucher for a free appetizer. The food was decent, but I can’t recommend this place because a so-called "tour operator" approached our table several times over the course of our lunch. I have a huge problem with restaurants that allow timeshare reps to disturb their customers while they are eating. Speaking of which...


As I've previously explained, timeshares are a big deal in Puerto Vallarta. This is not necessarily a bad thing - the reason my family and I have cumulatively spent so much time in Puerto Vallarta is because of the three timeshare properties World InternationalVacation Club operates in the city. Puerto Vallarta relies on tourism, and timeshares are an important part of that industry. That being said, for a while the timeshare wranglers were as annoying as they were ubiquitous; it was impossible to walk down the sidewalk without being accosted by multiple people aggressively offering you "free" tours or dinner cruises or tequila or other gifts: all you had to do to get them was subject yourself to an hours-long, high-pressure sales pitch aimed at getting you to spend tens of thousands of dollars on unit-week at a local resort.
On this trip, however, the aforementioned encounter at the restaurant was one of the more egregious timeshare pitches I experienced. Maybe it’s simply because I’m more wary of the timeshare wranglers and go out of my way to avoid them, or maybe it's because the timeshare industry has generally evolved, but there just didn’t seem to be as much "in-your-face" timeshare-pitch activity this time around. There were fewer wranglers manning kiosks along Avenida Mexico or the seawall approaching tourists as they walked by. There also didn’t seem to be as many tequila shops offering “free” bottles of tequila. In fact, there were plenty of establishments with signs saying “NO TIMESHARE” at their entrances, suggesting an awareness that tourists had become weary of these gimmicks.
To be sure, there is still the “timeshare gauntlet” at Puerto Vallarta’s airport. This is a room between the customs area and the ground transportation/exit area that arriving passengers are forced to walk through as they leave the terminal and where timeshare wranglers aggressively pitch “free” hotel transportation to incoming passengers. I find it rather obnoxious that something like this was designed into an airport's physical layout, but it is what it is. The best way to deal with the gauntlet is to walk with your baggage as quickly as possible, make no eye contact, and politely say “no thank you” to the people asking which hotel you’re staying at.

This particular trip was my first experience using Southwest's international services out of Hobby. I have no complaints about that service - Southwest isn't fancy, but it is reliable - or customs at Hobby. My only gripe is the customs and immigrations setup at Puerto Vallarta's airport: it is very slow, and in combination with the timeshare gauntlet, makes the airport an exasperating experience.

But Puerto Vallarta itself is worth it. So I'll keep going back.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

2019 Houston Cougar Football Preview

One week from tonight, another Houston Cougar football season begins. What can we expect?

Looking Back: When we last left the Cougars, they had just gotten utterly obliterated by Army, 14-70, in the Armed Forces bowl. The historically embarrassing loss - the Coogs' fourth out of the last five games of the seasons - subsequently resulted in a coaching change for the program, as Major Applewhite was fired and Dana Holgerson hired away from West Virginia to become Houston's newest head coach.

The Big Story for 2019: See above. The Cougars have a new head coach, one which they poached from a so-called "Power Five" school. Holgerson has a history at Houston, having previously been offensive coordinator here before serving as head coach for the Mountaineers.

Reasons for Optimism: A highly-qualified new coaching staff aside, the Coogs return a ton of talent of offense. Quarterback D'Eriq King is healthy again and hopes to top his 3,000 yard, 36-touchdown passing performance of a year ago. He has plenty of targets; most of last season's receiving corps returns, including Marquez Stevenson (who caught 75 passes for 1,019 yards and nine TDs last season) and Keith Corbin (who caught 40). King will also do his part on the ground, although veteran running backs Patrick Carr and Mulbah Car should be getting a fair amount of carries as well. Provided the offensive line can do its part and there are no major injuries (always a concern), the Coogs have the skill players to be one of the best offenses in the country.

Some talent also returns on the defensive side of the ball: defensive end Isiah Chambers returns from a knee injury that prematurely ended his season, and linebackers Leroy Godrey and David Anenih return as well. Gleson Sprewell and Deontay Anderson, who both had busy seasons at safety last year, also return.

Reasons for Pessimism: Those players aside, the fact is that last year's defense was one of the worst in the nation and statistically the worst in program history. Much of what little talent it did possess from last season - eight starters, including Ed Oliver and Austin Robinson - has departed. While the defense will receive an influx of JUCO and transfer talent, and while new defensive coordinator Dan Cauthen is an exponential upgrade over the incompetent charlatan that was Mike D'Onofrio, it's likely going to take more to make up for last season's disaster. This is especially true for the defensive line and at cornerback. Depth is an issue across the board.

As for as much skill is on the offensive side of the ball, the fact is that the Coogs are one D'Eriq King injury away from utter devastation. Will an offensive line that had major issues last year, culminating in giving up ten sacks in the bowl game to Army, be able to protect him?

There's also the schedule: not only is it much tougher overall than last season's, but it also starts off in brutal fashion. The Coogs play four games in nineteen days, including a road game against #4 Oklahoma and a not-quite-home game against #23 Washington State. There are back-to-back roadies against an improving Tulane team and a North Texas program that could win C-USA this season. Houston plays #17 Central Florida on the road, and has extremely tough home contests against Cincinnati and Memphis.

What the Humans Think: At least a few coaches cast ballots for the Coogs in the USA Today preseason poll; they received three votes. The AP sportswriters weren't as generous, although the AAC sportswriters picked the Coogs to finish second in the West Division, behind Memphis.

CBS Sports ranks the Cougars #37 to start the season; their sportswriters all have the Coogs finishing either first or second in the AAC West division and a couple of them even think they'll be conference champions. Althon ranks the Coogs #55 to start the season and expects them to complete the season with an 8-4 record (they also think that D'Eriq King is among the top ten best starting quarterbacks in the country). College Football News, likewise, ranks UH #55 to begin the season and is especially bullish with a prediction of a ten-win campaign - and a AAC West title - for 2019. Sports Illustrated actually thinks the Houston is a Group of Five team that could crack the top ten this fall.

SBNation, on the other hand, expects the Cougars to notch a 6-6 season. The SWC Roundup, whose comprehensive preview is worth reading in full, foresees a 7-5 season for UH. Special props to them for this gem about last year's defense:
The defense, with a slew of NFL caliber athletes, including a generational top ten pick, couldn’t squash a grape. We can now officially coin a new phrase in our lexicon, “D’Onofrio’d” - to be so Cottonelle soft that you draw defeat from the warm bosom of victory. Let us use it in a sentence: “Remember that time Houston put 49 on Temple but got D’Onofrio’d by 10?” 
What the Computers Think: ESPN's FPI puts no faith in the Cougars; its probabilistic forecast indicates a 4-8 record for UH. Massey's probabilities are only slightly better, suggesting a 6-6 season. Sagarin's preseason rankings suggest an 8-4 campaign when opponent rankings and home field advantage are taken into account, while Congrove expects the Cougars to go 5-7 in 2019.

What I think: While Dana Holgerson is obviously an upgrade over the hapless Major Applewhite, it's going to take a lot more than a coaching change for the Cougars to become competitive again. Espeically considering just how awful they were on defense last season. Combine that with a brutal schedule, and I think the Coogs are going to take a step backwards, at least in the win-loss column, this fall.

They will be absolutely destroyed by a revenge-minded Oklahoma on the road (hopefully the Coogs will get out of Norman without significant injuries) and be bested by Washington State at NRG. They will lose at least one of their back-to-back road games against Tulane and North Texas. They will lose on the road to UCF and at home to Memphis. The end result will be a 6-6 season for the Cougars.

National pundits who criticized Applewhite's firing and Holgerson's hiring will no doubt squeal with glee at such as result, but they'll also be missing the point. Dana Holgerson has a tough rebuilding job ahead of him against a much tougher schedule than the Coogs have played in the recent past. Improvement will not be measured in the win-loss column as it will through other metrics; namely, do the players and positions generally show improvement as the season progresses, are the players being motivated and coached to the best of their abilities, and (most importantly) are the Coogs able to beat the teams they are supposed to beat? If the answer to these questions at the end of the season is "yes," then it will have been a success regardless of the number of wins, and there will be much reason for optimism for the program going forward.

Finally, 2019 will mark the 150th anniversary of the College game. Dennis Dodd reflects on this milestone:
The game turns 150 this year at the height of its popularity. Consider that college football started in the Ulysses S. Grant administration. It didn't recognize a formal champion for 67 years (1936, the beginning of the wire service era). It didn't decide a champion on the field until 62 years after that (1998, the BCS era). It has survived World Wars, scandals and scores of deaths that have put the game itself in peril. In 1869, Clemson as a city wouldn't exist for another 20 years. Bear Bryant wouldn't be born for another 44 years. A little Midwest school named Notre Dame had just turned 27. Consider that -- in the history of officially recognized national championships -- only 30 teams have won it all. Since 1998, only 16 teams have played for a championship. Yes, it's an exclusive club -- this sport -- but we still love watching every darn minute.
I plan to celebrate and enjoy every moment of my favorite sport's 150th birthday. Go Coogs!

Slovenia: Goriška Brda Wine Region

Located in far western Slovenia near its border with Italy is the Goriška Brda region, which is one of the country's main wine producing areas. We spent a few hours there as we made our way back to Venice on the last day of our 2018 Eurotrip.

First, we had to get out of Ljubljana. Luckily, this bit of traffic congestion was short-lived, and about an hour and a half later we were in Goriška Brda. Slovenia's motorways are tolled, but there are no tollbooths: the country uses a convenient vignette system similar to what Austria uses.

Our first stop was this observation tower in the village of Gonjače, which was built in 1961. It takes 144 steps to climb to the top of the tower, which is 23 meters (75 feet) high and offers amazing views of the entire Goriška Brda region.

The view from the top of the tower. If the skies are completely clear, you're supposedly able to see all the way to the Gulf of Trieste. There was a bit of haze in the distance when we visited, however.

The region is dotted with hilltop villages such as Šmartno. It was just a short distance away from the observation tower. Clearly visible is the clock tower of St. Martin's church: it looks like a turret atop a castle because it was once used used for defensive purposes.

Another view of vineyards and villages in Goriška Brda from the top of the tower. The only drawback to the Yugoslav-era tower is that it swayed with the wind, which was a bit frightening!

Outside of the village of Dobrovo is the Klet Brda winery. As luck would have it, we arrived right before their daily tour of their wine cellars.

Casks of wine in the cellar. The region produces several varieties, including the local white varietal known as rebula.

Another view from within the cellars. Check out those massive wooden casks on the right!

One more shot of the casks in the cellar (which was huge!). In addition to grapes, the Brda region grows other types of produce, including figs, grapes and plums. Honey is produced as well.

An afternoon shower in Dobrovo. The rain was just fine with us, as it meant we got to spend more time in Klet Brda's wine tasting room at the end of the tour. The wine-growing region that includes Goriška Brda is split between Slovenia and Italy.

Mom and Corinne sample Klet Brda's products. We were encouraged to stick around and drink as much as we wanted! Unfortunately, as good as the wine was I could only have a few sips: I still had to drive us back to Venice!

The winery staff also gave me some information about their distributors in the United States; however, I haven't had much luck tracking down their wines so far.

We only spent a couple of hours in Goriška Brda, but there's much more there to explore, including a recently-renovated Renaissance villa on the site of an old castle in Vipolže, a church featuring a Gothic-style altar built in 1515 in Kojsko, and the world's largest stone arch railway bridge. If you're traveling through Slovenia or even far eastern Italy (e.g. Trieste, Udine, Palmanova), this place is definitely worth checking out.

Our final stop was the Mercator grocery store in Dobrovo so mom could get some forest fruit preserves to take back to the States (she really liked it). Then it was on to Venice, where we checked in to our hotel, returned the rental car, had a final meal at a pizzeria, got a few hours sleep and then flew back to the United States. Thus ended the amazing 2018 EuroTrip.