PAX Report: Sunday & Monday

Well, as usual, I’m running a bit behind on this blog.  Since Sunday and Monday I spent the majority of the time on the show floor, I’m going to mainly talk about what I saw there and what perked my interest.
Oh, let me cover a few non-expo hall things first.

DSC_0198If there was one thing I was a bit disappointed about this year, it was that the swag was currently lacking.  For those of you who had never been to a gaming convention, swag is the free stuff that is handed out at the booths.  It is also almost a mini competition to see who collects the most swag.  And in the past, the items they handed out were pretty awesome; t-shirts, plushies, bobbleheads, hats, etc.  Back in college, I only had to actually buy one or two shirts a year because I would get a weeks worth of free shirts at the convention.  Add that to the collection of shirts from the previous years, and even today my closet is 80% shirts from the convention.  However, over the last couple years, as expected with the rise in attendance and the poor economy, exhibitors have been holding back on the really good stuff.  The used to hand out the shirts to anyone who walked by their booth, then you had to at least play the game before they gave your the shirt.  Ok, except that you had to usually wait an hour or more in line to play if it was a popular game.  Now you usually have to pre-order the game first or by the shirt separately at the game’s merch table.  Even so, I managed to snag a couple free shirts this year.  There were a lot of things that tempt you to spend money as well.  A few vendors managed to separate me from my money.  I picked up a Rooster Teeth Podcast shirt and shotglass at their booth, a PAX 2013 shirt, and a Cards Against Humanity starter box.

The main floor is pretty much what you expect, major studios and publishers showing off their upcoming games, many that will be released this fall and Christmas.  There were

Forza 5 for Xbox One

Forza 5 for Xbox One

also hardware makers as well showing off their latest tech.  Microsoft had several games playable for their upcoming Xbox One console, the biggest was their upcoming game Titanfall.  Attendees waited in three hour long lines to be the first to get their hands on the highly anticipated first person shooter that allows you to control a 30 foot tall mech.  Another highly anticipated game at the booth was the upcoming Battlefield 4, the successful multiplayer military shooter.  Other than a updated graphics engine, it’s pretty much good ol’ Battlefield gameplay.  The game I played at the both was the one I was really looking forward to, Forza 5.  The physics engine has been revamped to simulate the tiniest handling detail that you would find on an actual race car.  If you play the game on the new Xbox one controller, the triggers vibrate under braking to give you that loss of grip feedback you would feel on the actual brake pedal.  The graphic detail is amazing too, they even simulated the imperfections in the paint of the McLaren P1 that I was racing around the streets.  This game alone is tempting me to get an Xbox one at launch.  The best part was playing the game at the booth in their race seat and wheel setup.  I will admit that the there seemed to be a millisecond delay with the wheel that was just noticeable enough that it was difficult to make the fine corrections when driving.  But I blame that on the hardware used and not the game itself.

Nearby was the Wargaming.net booth that was promoting the Xbox 360 version of their hit game World of Tanks as well as their game World of Warplanes.  This is not to be confused with World of Warcraft or Minecraft or…ok, now I’m confusing myself, LOL.  But anyway, the game is pretty basic.  You go online to do battle with other players from around the world (like the General Board on the Lit forums) and hop in a tank and do battle.  Of course, there are different classes of tanks depending on what role you want to play on the battlefield.  The light tanks are great for moving fast and capturing control points or using as scouts, but will not stand a chance against heavier tanks individually.  But while the heavy tanks have more armor and firepower, they are slower moving and can can be sitting ducks if in the wrong place.  I did not get a chance to get my hands on World of Warplanes though, but it looks awesome.

Playstation booth

Playstation booth

Sony had a large booth there promoting it’s upcoming Playstation 4 console and many of it’s other games coming out.  They even had a guy dressed up as Ratchet from the Ratchet and Clank series.  But I haven’t really played any Playstation games since when I owned a Playstation 2 for Guitar Hero back in college.  Ubisoft had a nice booth promoting Assassins Creed: Black Flag.  There was also….oh wait, that’s right, this is about what I saw and was interested in.  Well, lets just say there was a lot of things there, and didn’t get a close look at everything either due to lines or time.  But I’ll continue on.

The hardware manufacturer, Nvidia, was showing off some of their new graphics cards as well as their new Nvidia Shield handheld gaming device.  This self contained handheld not only has it’s own games that can be downloaded onto it, but can also stream games from your computer over WiFi.  At first I wasn’t impressed when I played a side scrolling helicopter game on it.  But then I switched the game to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and I was super impressed with the controls and graphics.  I would have really liked to have gotten a chance to test its streaming capabilities, but alas, it was not meant to be.

Ratchet from the game Ratchet and Clank

Ratchet from the game Ratchet and Clank

The Bethesda booth as always had some nice things to show.  After some line waiting, I got a chance to get my hands on Elder Scrolls Online.  Like all the other Elder Scrolls games, this takes place in the realm of Tamriel.  You will get to explore the lands from the prior game; Daggerfall, Morrowind, Cyrodiil, and Skyrim in a massively multiplayer online world.  I enjoyed the combat system because it played like all the other Elder Scrolls games, left click for attack and right click for shield.  It’s not set up like the click enemy then click different attacks system that other MMOs have.  So it should be a really simple game for anyone to learn.  The only downside is that unlike other MMOs that have moved to a free to play system (then pay for the good armor), Elder Scrolls Online is on the old subscription system of $15 a month.  As much as I want to play the world of Elder Scrolls with my friends, that may be asking too much in terms of price.  But they did get fucking Michael Gambon to voice the trailer!  Bethesda is also bringing back the classic Wolfenstien series with their upcoming game Wolfenstien: The New Order.  I didn’t get a chance to play it, but I don’t expect it to have any groundbreaking gameplay.  If anything, it will probably be a very linear shooter.  But who can complain when you’re killing goose-stepping Nazi’s, LOL.

Elder Scrolls Online booth.

Elder Scrolls Online booth.

There were a few games that surprised me there as well.  One that is being made by UbiSoft is a racing game called The Crew.  You have to compete in various types of races including point-to-point and pass through the gate.  You also are assigned missions such as taking down a large SUV carrying drugs by ramming it.  It reminds me of the newer Fast and Furious movies and it’s a game that wants to compete against the Need for Speed game series.  An addicting fighting game there was Dive Kick.  There is no complicated combo system or hidden moves, just two buttons; dive and kick.  You press dive to make your character jump into the air, then kick to drop kick your opponent.  So the game focuses more on timing your moves rather than what combos you know.  Devolver Digital was there to show off their reboot of the the politically incorrect 1997 shooter Shadow Warrior.  You play a Lo Wang, a gun toting and sword wielding hero as you fight off demons.  The game is filled with over the top gore and inappropriate stereotypes and is tons of fun to play.

Lots of dice.

Lots of dice.

But the games that stole the show were the small “indie” games.  Unlike the large studios who have hundreds of millions of dollars and an army of programmers, these indie developers have only a handful of people.  Digipen college had several games created by their students there.  My favorite game from the Digipen students was Super Space.  The setup is very similar to the old Asteroids arcade games, but there are some major differences.  You and three other friends each control a turret attached to a random shape.  You then shoot at the “asteroids” that fly onto the screen.  However, your ship will be pushed in the opposite direction of your shooting due to the recoil and zero gravity.  Also, and asteroids you miss thicken the walls of the “barrier” you are allowed to fly in.  So not only do you need to destroy your targets, but you need to keep control of your ship as well.  Oh, and to make things more complicated, different shapes handle differently.  I tight shape, like an “L” or “H” shape, will probably be easier to control.  However a flat bar will easily spin wildly.  As a result, some rounds only last a few seconds.  I really can’t wait until this is finally released on the Xbox marketplace because it is the perfect party game.

EXTERMINATE!

EXTERMINATE!

But my favorite game from the indie booth was The Stanley Parable.  This game started out as a Half-Life 2 community made add-on and has now grown to its own game with a new engine.  In The Stanley Parable, you play a man named Stanley who one day discovers that all of his co-workers have vanished from the office and decides to look for them.  What makes the game unique is that there are no puzzles, no weapons or enemies, just you doing what the Narrator is telling you.  Ah, did you catch that?  The Narrator is the other character in the game, and in some ways, the antagonist as he tries to tell the story of Stanley.  As the soothing voice tells the story of Stanley, you have the option to follow or disobey.  For example, if you approach a pair of doors, the Narrator might say “Stanley went through the left door.”  You can go through the correct door and continue with Stanley’s story.  However, you could also go through the other door instead in which case the Narrator will become irate over the fact you are ruining his story.  Deviate too far from the story, and the Narrator will kill Stanley.

For PAX, a special demo was created just for the event.  Like any exhibition demo, the player is tasked with showing off what The Stanley Parable is about.  Of course, the demo goes “all wrong” and never quite gets underway, causing the Narrator to panic and desperately find some way to salvage it.  At one point he makes the player walk all the way back tot he start point, stand up, and apologize to the other PAX attendees for playing the demo so terribly.  I downloaded and played the mod after PAX and I’m really looking forward to the full game, especially with the superb writing it has.

In the end, this was a really good year at PAX.  Originally, I had decided that after 10 years I would stop going for a couple years.  But I might just have to go next year.  I know I missed a few things, so if you have any questions about anything else that was or wasn’t there, post that question in the comments.  Thanks for reading!

Gamers trying out the Nvidia Shield

Gamers trying out the Nvidia Shield

Wolfenstein: The New Order gameplay

Wolfenstein: The New Order gameplay

Giant robo-dog from Wolfenstein

Giant robo-dog from Wolfenstein

I love the art in Wildstar

I love the art in Wildstar

Yes, they even had some of the classics there.

Yes, they even had some of the classics there.

There were some really cool PC rigs

There were some really cool PC rigs

My swag haul

My swag haul

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Waiting to play Elder Scrolls Online.

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A glimpse at the show floor.

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Digipen college is here showing off the latest games from their students.

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More games!

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PAX lines

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The show hasn’t even opened for the day!

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PAX Report: Day 1….well really 2

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If there is one thing I look forward to summer, it’s the Penny Arcade Expo held every year in Seattle Washington.  This year is special for me as this is my 10th consecutive year coming to this expo.  This is a convention held by the creators of the web comic Penny-Arcade for fans and gamers.  I went to the very first PAX back in 2004 when it was just 3,000 attendees taking up a few rooms in a small convention center.  Now, it has grown to 64,000+ attendees celebrating everything gaming and geek culture over four days.  It has grown so large that it has overflowed out of the largest convention center in the state, taken over the legendary Paramount theatre just down the street, and several conference rooms in the surrounding hotels.  This is also a special time for my brother and myself as this is when we get one last weekend to spend time together before he heads back to college.

DSC_0013So since we both had jobs, we skipped Friday and started Saturday.  Arriving later than usual, we barely found parking and made it into the convention center.  But instead of heading for the main expo hall, we decided to head to one of the smaller halls on the top floor.  The crowds there were less and there was some great stuff from smaller, independent developers.  One of the more interesting things we saw there was a device called the Oculus Rift.  It sounds like some a portal gun that tears through the fabric of space-time.  Instead, it’s a set of VR goggles now sold at the consumer level.  As much as it did make things more imersive, it’s not for those with motion sickness.

Gamers trying out the Oculus Rift

Gamers trying out the Oculus Rift

The Oculus Rift

Afterwards, we made our way to the Paramount theatre for Acquisitions Incorporated, a live Dungeons & Dragons game with the creators of Penny Arcade.  While waiting in line, I made some new friends and played my first ever game of Cards Against Humanity.  In the game, one person reads a “fill in the blank” statement and everyone else plays a card to fill in that blank.  LOL, I discovered that in order to play the game well, you had to have a sick and twisted mind.  An couple hours of line waiting after, we watched the D&D match.  A Dungeons & Dragons match is a lot funnier when held in front of a live audience.  Our heroes encountered a tin robot filled with Kool-Aid that had a inappropriately placed spigot to drink from, a forest with tree nymphs who tried to seduce one of the players before strangling him, and a hundred foot statue that was really an ancient robot that they could control.

Acquisitions Inc. live D&D match

Acquisitions Inc. live D&D match

Finishing off the night was a concert from a group playing at PAX for the first time called The Doubleclicks.  They were incredibly good.  Their songs covering everything from the disappointment of dating Mr. Darcy who was a jerk, being labeled a “fake nerd”, to the most disturbing lullaby I have heard.

The Doubleclicks

The Doubleclicks

One day complete, tomorrow I’m hitting the main expo hall to see all the latest and greatest games and tech coming out soon.

A Twi'lek cosplayer

A Twi’lek cosplayer

Cosplayer as Loki.  Not Tom Hiddleston, but close enough.

Cosplayer as Loki. Not Tom Hiddleston, but close enough.

Umm, yes m'am.  I'll be a good PAX attendee.

Umm, yes m’am. I’ll be a good PAX attendee.

Display from XCOM booth

Display from XCOM booth

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I left my heart in San Franoma

So I’m FINALLY getting around to this.  Especially since I would feel so empty and incomplete without at least detailing the final leg of my trip for all my Lit friends.  <3  This will also likely be my last blogpost…at least until my next trip where I’m sure I’ll be “encouraged” to document that one as well.  So to kill two birds with one stone, I’m going to talk about two days in one post.

So on the Sunday while there was when we planned to hit up San Francisco.  The first challenge was getting there.  The hotel was in Fairfield since it was a nice, central location to Sacramento, Napa, Sonoma, and San Fran.  But we were still about 47 miles away.  Driving seemed to be out of the question since San Francisco has the worst hills, traffic, and parking rates ($8 an hour).  The best option to get into town if you are staying outside of the city is to take the BART light rail.  We parked the car at Richmond and took the train the rest of the way in.  Now, I’m not used to taking public transit back at home.  I normally only take the bus and light rail in Seattle about once a year to go see the Seafair hydroplanes, so I’m normally a fish out of water when I have to resort to public transit…especially in a different city.  That said, the trip went well.

Hydroplanes @ Seafair

Hydroplanes @ Seafair (Photo credit: ttstam)

We took the BART line from the Richmond station to the Powell Street station.  Once off the train, we immediately went to the Visitor Information Center to purchase one of the most helpful things for a day trip in San Fran.  At $14 for a single day, a Visitor Day Pass will give you unlimited rides on the bus, metro, streetcars, and historic cable cars.  Trust me, it’s worth it.  Why?  Because a single cable car ride will cost you about $6.  This pass will give you the ability to hop on and off the cable car and make one of San Francisco’s most well known icons your primary mode of transportation.  You don’t get more of a true San Francisco experience than that.  Now one thing to keep in mind is that the start and end locations of the cable car routes are usually the busiest…especially in the morning.  Our wait time was about an hour for our first ride.  But after that, it will lighten up during the day.  It is good though if you catch a near full cable car because it will give you an excuse to stand on the outside running boards and hang off the side.

Cable car at Powell St.

Cable car at Powell St.

The cable car line took us north all the way to Fishermans Wharf.  Once you wade past all the “touristy” shops, you get to the boardwalk.  I had no idea what to expect there, this outing was a “let’s go here and see what we find” experience.  However, a sign that said “WWII submarine and Liberty Ship, this way” caught my attention.  I turned the corner onto Pier 45, and saw two beautiful pieces of history docked right in front of me.  The submarine was the USS Pampanito and the Liberty Ship was the SS Jeremiah O’Brien.  Both are museums, but I did not go on the tour.  But I was fine standing on the dock and admiring them while taking lots of pictures.

USS Pampanito at Pier 45

USS Pampanito at Pier 45

SS Jeremiah O'Brien

SS Jeremiah O’Brien

I take it she was lucky to have aboard

I take it she was lucky to have aboard

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After stopping by these magnificent warships, it was a quick stroll down to Pier 39.  This is probably the most visited places on the wharf and it has a little bit of everything.  Some of the best restaurants on the waterfront are here; even some big ones such as Hard Rock and Bubba Gumps.  There’s even an aquarium, a hall of mirrors, and a carousel.

Crab sculpture at the entrance to Pier 39

Crab sculpture at the entrance to Pier 39

As I said before, your food choices are plentiful.  Everything from nice sit-down restaurants, to casual seafood dives.  But if you’re looking for some great seafood on the go, you have to try Pier Market Seafood.  Recently voted Best Seafood in San Francisco by a local TV station, while this place has a nice restaurant you do have to try the “crab stand” just outside.  What is essentially a streetside food counter, the stand serves delicious small bites right out of the restaurant’s kitchen.  And for a few bucks, you can get a wonderful shrimp cocktail.

Shrimp cocktail from Pier Market Seafood

Shrimp cocktail from Pier Market Seafood

Wait!  Shrimp for only a few bucks?  Doesn’t that smell a bit fishy?  No actually, no fishy taste either.  Fresh shrimp and absolutely delicious.  As you continue up the pier, you will eventually get to the San Francisco carousel; a double decker merry-go-round.  If you duck into one of the side alleys, you can look at all the beautiful boats on the marina.   As I walked to the end of the pier, the morning fog had finally lifted and got extraordinary views of Alcatraz island and the Golden Gate Bridge.  Now on the other side of the pier is another great attraction, the sea lion colony.  Hundreds of sea lions lay out on floating platforms to soak up the sun and bark at each other.  And boy are they LOUD.  You can spend hours just watching them.

Horses on the San Francisco carousel.  I honestly tried to not make them look creepy.

Horses on the San Francisco carousel. I honestly tried to not make them look creepy.

Boats on the Pier 39 marina

Boats on the Pier 39 marina

A wall of magnets at one of the shops on Pier 39

A wall of magnets at one of the shops on Pier 39

Golden Gate bridge

Golden Gate bridge

Alcatraz, the infamous prison.  Also known as "The Rock".

Alcatraz, the infamous prison. Also known as “The Rock”.

Sea lions

Sea lions

Panorama of the sea lion colony

Panorama of the sea lion colony

San Francisco Ferry Building

San Francisco Ferry Building

Next we took a street car, thanks to our visitors pass, down to the ferry building.  Another historic building filled with all sorts of shops including meat shops, wine tasting bars and fresh produce.  One place to check out for a quick bite is Boccalone Salumeria.  Near the front entrance, this meat shop sell all sorts of salumi.  A nice quick snack you can get here is called a salumi cone.  Basically a paper cone stuffed with thin slices of meat.  Of you’re like me hand have a habit of eating the lunch meat straight from the packaging, you will enjoy this.

Just outside of the Ferry Building and across the street is the farmers market.  Like any farmers market, there is all sorts of produce and knick-knacks there.  Across the courtyard, you will find the Vaillancourt Fountain.  In the courtyard of the Embarcadero, this fountain has created quite a lot of controversy since its construction in 1971 with numerous proposals to tear it down.  Essentially a jumble of square concrete pipes that pour water into a surrounding pool.  One of the more interesting features is that you can walk through the fountain over a series of large stepping stones.  I managed to take a few shots with my camera from inside the fountain, protecting it carefully the entire time, and having a lot of fun playing with the shutter speeds making the flow of the water come out differently in each picture.

The Vaillancourt Fountain

The Vaillancourt Fountain

From there, we hopped on the cable car going up California street and hopped off at Chinatown.  The San Francisco Chinatown district is the largest outside of Asia.  May of the shops sell Chinese wardrobe and furniture.  You will also find a plethora of Chinese restaurants.  Other places sell regular San Francisco merchandise with “made in China” printed on the bottom.   You could spend a good portion of the day exploring all of them, but we decided just a quick stroll was best.  After ducking into a few shops, we decided to head back to our Union Square starting point.  We caught the cable car on Powell street and rode it all the way back, ate dinner, then took the BART back to our car.

Cable car on California and Market Street

Cable car on California and Market Street

On the cable car heading up California street.  Took this while hanging off the side.

On the cable car heading up California street. Took this while hanging off the side.

Sonoma

The next day would be our last full day in California, so we spent it with a full day romp through Sonoma.  The first stop was Sonoma Raceway.  This 2.52 mile track is home for yearly races for NASCAR, IndyCar, and AMA Superbikes.  This road course is snuggled up against the neighboring hillside which allows for some interesting elevation changes in the track.  In the 2010 NASCAR race, driver Marcos Ambrose shut off his engine while in the lead to conserve fuel while under caution.  The problem; he shut off the engine while going uphill after turn 1.  When he couldn’t get his engine refired, NASCAR gave his position Jimmie Johnson who ended up winning the race.

Three cars going up the hill at Sonoma Raceway

Three cars going up the hill at Sonoma Raceway

Modified Honda S2000 taking turn 2 at Sonoma

Modified Honda S2000 taking turn 2 at Sonoma

There was no race going on the day we went, but instead was a “test session” day.  There were some professional race teams testing their cars, other people bringing their personal cars to drive on the track.  Unfortunately, they would not allow me to take the rental car out on the track. =(  But it was still a lot of fun to watch these cars drive on the track.  Got lots of pictures, and even a Jeff Gordon shirt on sale in the gift shop.

What looks to be a vintage IndyCar taking turn 2 at Sonoma

A vintage Formula 1 car taking turn 2 at Sonoma

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Panorama of Sonoma Raceway

Viansa Winery

Viansa Winery

The next stop was Viansa Winery.  Like Sterling, this winery sits on a hilltop overlooking the entire valley.  The first thing you notice is the Tuscan architecture of the building.  As you walk up, the hand rails of the path are sculpted to be grapevines.  My favorite wine there was the 2012 Aleantico Rosé, a very sweet wine with hints of citrus and strawberries.  See a pattern in my favorite kind of wines? =)  The winery does have a nice deli with a patio that has one hell of a view.  However, we had a different place in mind for lunch.

The view from Viansa

The view from Viansa

Lunch was at the Boon Fly Cafe, part of the Carneros resort.  In a red barn, this cozy restaurant serves up some delicious and reasonably priced food.  I had the free range turkey melt.  Quite good, even if the cranberries make the taste a bit interesting.  Afterwards, the next winery was Gundlatch Bundschu; the oldest family owned winery in California.  The 2012 Gewürztraminer has a crisp, dry taste with a hint of orange blossom and fresh ginger.  The 2011 Chardonnay is very creamy and goes very well with lighter foods.  Like many wineries in the valleys, they store their barrels in caves.  The underground caves do an excellent job and keeping a constant cool temperature and stable humidity.

Rows of grapevines at GunBun.

Rows of grapevines at GunBun.

The plan was to make J winery the final stop for the day.  However, since we were so behind schedule, we knew we would not make it through the Sonoma traffic in time before they closed.  So instead, we tried for another worlds class winery, Kendall-Jackson.  Unfortunately, their main tasting room closed by the time we arrived.  However, open or not, the main grounds are worth checking out for their beautiful gardens.

The entrance to Kendall-Jackson estates

The entrance to Kendall-Jackson estates

We would not leave disappointed though.  We were told that they had just opened up a new restaurant called Partake by K-J in Healdsburg.  A tasting lounge that specializes in food and wine parings.  We had arrived before the crowds, which allowed for a more intimate experience.  It was also a good sign when another couple walked out and said to us, “You’re going to have fun.”  It wouldn’t be cheap either, but you don’t go on vacation to save money, right?

The first thing they do is bring you out a mystery wine.  The wine is in a black glass, so you cannot guess if it’s a red or white just by looking at it.  We were then asked to taste it and then guess what type of wine it was.  I tasted it; it was not heavy like a red, but wasn’t sweet either.  I believe I had gotten it right by guessing a Chardonnay (I don’t have my tasting notes in front of me as I write this).  They also brought out bread which they told us was made from their grape skins crushed into flour.  Not sure what to pick for tasting, we ordered the Chef’s Flight.  It was sure one hell of an experience.  Not only did it give you a wonderful understanding how food can change the flavor of the wine, but the food itself was top notch.  I’m not one for oysters or clams, but the oyster plate they brought out was delicious.  They also had the best lamb I had ever tasted.  One thing that was really interesting was the tempura maitake mushrooms.  The tempura batter was really dark, I could only assume because it was fried in their K-J brand olive oil, but it was delicious.  If you are in the Sonoma valley region, this place it a must.

After walking around Healdsburg a bit, a small town filled with cute shops and trendy restaurants, we took the long drive back to the hotel.  A perfect way to end a wonderful trip.

Some of the garden at Kendall-Jackson estates

Some of the garden at Kendall-Jackson estates

Bird taking a bath in the fountain

Bird taking a bath in the fountain

Bottles of Kendall-Jackson wine at K-J

Bottles of Kendall-Jackson wine at K-J

Tempura mushrooms and lamb at Partake by K-J

Tempura mushrooms and lamb at Partake by K-J

The outside of Partake by K-J

The outside of Partake by K-J

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Cavity search

So apparently if you can’t even have pocket lint when going through the airport body scanners.  Seriously!  I had two quarters and a receipt in my pocket and had to get a pat down.

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Google

Meeting a family friend for lunch at the Google headquarters.

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Does your lobby have this?

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Yes, this is a real sign

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