Friday, April 20, 2018

Hamilton & Other Hijinks in London

Trip date: March 2018

Everyone knows that the hit Broadway musical Hamilton has swept the nation! But it also crossed the pond to jolly old England where the tickets are just slightly easier to get. My girlfriends who are based in Europe snagged four tickets and very kindly invited me along! Having seen it in Seattle I was super excited to see it again, and the opportunity for a girls weekend was just the cherry on top!

I cashed in a bunch of miles and got myself a round trip Business Class on British Air. I'd spend four days in London with the girls, then four days in Edinburgh with my BFF, and then one week on my own driving around Scotland! I was OTT excited!

The BA lounge at SeaTac is nothing special (why are American airline lounges crap compared to international cities?) but there is a small trolley of mini sandwiches, fruit, cheese, etc. Another counter offers non-alcoholic drinks. There is a bar the size of a coat closet where you order real drinks and I was very happy with the martini I got there (airport standards in place).

My flight over was on a 777 which has a very strange 2-4-2 configuration. I was seated in one of the middle seats which I was able to trade for an aisle; the 2 in the middle are super cozy which would be great traveling as a couple. The window seat on the 2 config side is definitely the most private seat but I wasn't able to finagle that this time.

I had a lovely 9-hour direct flight to London, which was just enough time to have a four-course meal paired with wines, watch a movie, and go to sleep in my lay flat bed. The seats on BA seem overly complicated (even coming with a full instruction manual) but they are very comfy and come with mini mattresses and nice blankets and down comforters.

I had purchased my ticket on the Heathrow Express online in advance so once I had my bag it was a quick 15 minutes, for about $15 to Paddington Station. From here I grabbed a black taxi to our Airbnb in Southwerk, that took almost an hour even though it was just lunchtime!

I took a nap while the girls were out at lunch so that I wouldn't fall asleep in the theater. It was 5 1/2 until showtime!

Our apartment was in such a great location, right outside the Borough Market! We easily walked to the Shard that evening for drinks at Gong. We had reservations and when they sat us they mentioned that as soon as a table next to one of the windows opened up they would move us to it. I thought that was very nice!

The views of London from the 52nd floor are spectacular and the space was very elegant. It took over 30 minutes to get our drinks though, which meant only one round before the show, and they were all just ok. I'd say go to Gong but have a glass of champagne. It's definitely worth it for the views!

We grabbed a taxi to the Victoria Palace Theater, almost missing curtain call as traffic was so bad! The show was great but we all thought that the vocals weren't as strong as on the album, and I felt there was a bit of exuberant patiotism missing from the all British troupe. None of that stopped us from singing, chair dancing, and having a great time!
The night wrapped up in a divey bar, laughing and having some good fun with a bunch of drunk Brits. They do love to let loose!

We had tickets the next morning to the Modigliani exhibit at the Tate Modern. While we were all getting ready, Melanie went to the Borough Market and brought us back coffee and bacon & egg butties (bacon & egg sandwiches to you and me!) how great is that?

The exhibit was really unique. They had an interesting selection of his paintings, the vast majority were owned privately, as well as some sculpture. Most of it I had never seen before. They also had a VR exhibit which Forest and I did; it plopped you right inside his studio and surrounded you with bits of his work, his life, and even his views of his Paris neighborhood. The experience was so real that both of us even felt the wind on our face as the rain started outside his studio window!

Before leaving the Tate we all grabbed a glass of wine and took in the views of the city and the Thames from the 6th-floor bar. A great view and stop that not everyone knows about.

(Not far from the Tate is the Banksy Print Gallery, which Mel and I stopped into later in the day. Some interesting stuff by both Banksy and other artists represented by Lazinc.)

It was time for lunch and I had made reservations at Kricket in SOHO. When in London- Indian food! Kricket was cool, modern, pretty, and delicious! Our waiter nicely gave us a bunch of recommendations and they were spot on; go mainly with the vegetable options and just add one or two proteins. We all loved it! Highly recommended.

Another morning a few of us went to brunch at Duck & Waffle which is on the 40th floor of the Heron Tower. The restaurant is good, my duck confit and waffle was great, but the draw here is definitely the views. Spectacular! And different from those you get at The Shard. And it's open 24/7 so if you need a late night spot...

Afterwards, we went to the London Mithraeum at Bloomberg Space. The remains of an ancient temple from the cult of Mithras was found during construction and it's open to the public (and free!). There are some very cool glass cases of random items they found dating from about 2000 years ago! And it's all in the middle of The City.

By our last day, the other ladies had left for home and Forest and I packed up to head to Edinburgh. We got to Kings Cross Station a bit early and treated ourselves to a fancy little lunch at Plum & Spilt Milk, complete with champagne, wine, and full English fry up. Ahhh, vacation!!!

London post on cocktails coming... cuz you know there were some cocktail crawls!

All London photos here.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Partly Cloudy Palm Springs

Trip date: March 2018

I'm just back from my 6th annual Palm Springs trip! I've stayed in 3 different houses with the group I've been going with, and this may well be the last time in the Contempo Oasis as it was recently sold so we're not sure if it will continue as a rental or not.
This year I flew in a bit later in the day than most of the others, on the direct SEA to PSP Alaska Air flight. Flights were pretty expensive so I used miles for one-way and got a really well-priced flight on the return, both in Premium class. Although on the flight down we had so much turbulence that they only did one drink services so not a lot gained there! ha!

I got rained on a bit as I took a taxi to the rental house. WTF?  And then was only greeted by this very sad bar, leftovers from last year, as everyone was out doing the tough work; the shopping.
I turned up the hot tub, changed into my suit and waited for the others to get back. Once the shoppers were back, we did some drinks in the hot tub before having our traditional first evening dinner of Costco roast chicken and steamed artichokes.

I was only down for four full days this time so I chose not to work like I normally do (minus a quick check of email daily). My morning walks looked quite a bit different as the valley had had cool drizzly weather recently. There were lots of flowers blooming and the river bed was full of vegetation and even had some water running over its dam.
One night Lauren, Paul, Steve, Dave, Mary and I went out for drinks and dinner. We started with cocktails at Truss & Twine and while the drinks were all fine, the space is really dark, bare, and cavernous. It doesn't scream "hang out and have a couple". Hell, it doesn't even whisper it!
I probably wouldn't choose to go back here but seeing that is owned and connected to Workshop Kitchen, where we were having dinner, it was a fine stop.

Workshop has been around for years, but we had yet to go. I was very much looking forward to it, more so after walking into the prettily lit courtyard!
We checked in, about 10 minutes early for our reservation, and ordered drinks from the bar to sip on outside. The bar here is really great and I would absolutely recommend a drink here even if you aren't dining.

Long story short, the restaurant didn't seat us for 30 minutes past our reservation time even though there was another table set for six who were running late. We spoke to the hostess and manager multiple times and they didn't seem to really have a clue how to fix things. It was frustrating and we were all quite hungry by this time.

However once seated we had fantastic service, the manager sent out some complimentary small dishes (the roasted Brussels sprouts, caramel fish sauce, lap cheong, and crispy shallots were a huge hit and I'm not particular to them in general) and glasses of pink champagne. Every single thing we ordered, a mix of shared plates and an entree each, was fantastic. Excellent flavors, presentation, and execution. So even though we got off to a rocky start it ended up being one of the best dining experiences I've had in Palm Springs. Although you can safely skip dessert.
My last day was partly cloudy, such a difference from in years past, but our pool was warm and it was a great and lazy day spent floating, drinking mimosas and rosé out of my glass with my hanging Chad glass marker that Mary had brought us!

And on my last night our friend Shirley arrived just in time for my favorite meal- all the tasty things bought at the Mexican market; tamales, refried beans, carnitas, strip steaks, chicarrones, salsa, crema!!!! Followed by a very competitive game of Exploding Kittens!
The next day Mary, Lauren, Carolyn, and Shirley dropped me off at the airport on their way to the tennis matches in Indian Wells.

Too short of a trip, but better than no Palm Springs trip!
Palm Spring phots here.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Weekend in San Antonio

Trip date: May 2017

Driving south from Mineola and Tyler Texas, where we had BBQ earlier in the day, we arrived in Taylor Texas after about 3 ½ hours. Again, consulting the Texas Monthly Best BBQ articles I chose Louie Mueller’s for an early dinner. We ordered brisket and sides and were told they didn’t sell beer although we could BYOB. Forest went to the nearest convince store for brews and I grabbed a table.

The brisket was fantastic, we loved the potato salad side, and they even gave us a little sample of their peach cobbler.  It was the perfect break in our drive; we had 3 more hours before hitting San Antonio.

Once in town, we checked into the Marriott Riverwalk where we had a nice view of the river and were able to drop off the rental car practically across the street. Our friend James had driven in from Austin to hang out with us for the weekend and we met him in our bar for a drink before heading out for the night.

We followed the Riverwalk to Downstairs at the Esquire Tavern. This cocktail lounge is so pretty and slightly posh, with a fantastic higher-end liquor selection and lovely drinks. Add to that our awesome bartender and we ended up making a night of it!

The next morning the three of us tried the city’s famous puffy tacos at The Blanco Cafe. I paired mine with a cheese enchilada. Perfect hangover food!

Forest and I then left to go tour The Alamo which was really fantastic! I loved going through the old buildings, learning about the original mission, and reading about the history of the site. The grounds were also super pretty!

We decided the heat called for margaritas and chose to sit on the terrace at Rio Rio overlooking the Riverwalk and the riverboats cruising around. The Riverwalk is one of the most touristy things ever but it’s still fun and we got some good people watching it over a few rounds.

That evening we met up with James and checked out happy hour at The Last Word. The bar was pretty good, a tad on the loud side, but had decent Old Fashions, great HH prices, and interesting framed prints of various writers on the walls.

We went by Uber to the Hotel Emma, home of the old Pearl Brewery and converted into an absolutely gorgeous boutique hotel. After wandering the lobby we made our way into Sternewirth for cocktails. The bar still has some of the old tanks inside, now they are cool booths, as well as some of the mechanics from the brewery.

Our drinks were all good and the menu was nicely creative. All in all a good stop and I would absolutely try to stay at the hotel if I were in town again!

We had dinner reservations just across the parking lot at Nao, the CIA's restaurant in the Pearl Brewery complex. When we were there they offered either a 3 or 4-course prix fixe for $36 or $44 respectively. It’s a great price and while the meal was good, there was nothing really stand-out-ish about any of it.

Nightcaps at the Esquire Tavern, this time upstairs. The bar here looks more divey with large wood booths and a dim casual atmosphere than downstairs. But they still take care with their cocktails and they claim to be the oldest bar on the Riverwalk and the longest wood bartop in Texas. It's certainly a fun spot!

I slept in a bit and met up with James and Forest the next morning at the kitschy Tex-Mex Mi Tierra Cafe. From the minute you walk in your eyes are bombarded with all matter of crazy shit hanging from the ceiling and decorating the walls. It’s like Christmas exploded and it’s pretty fun.
I ordered my now standard puffy taco and cheese enchilada which were fine. It’s not really about the food here, IMHO it’s all about the wacky ambiance.

San Antonio's Market Square is the largest Mexican market in the US and is about the size of 3-city blocks. We explored for a while, catching a folk dancing exhibit and browsing the crafty shops selling an assortment of stuff: day of the dead figurines, leather items, tourist t-shirts.

It was really hot so we decided to hit the air conditioning at the Esquire Tavern. We obviously really liked that place!

You can’t go to SA without taking a riverboat, well I couldn’t anyway, so we took one that does taxi stops along the river. We passed the touristy restaurants and bars that line the main part, sailed through the business district, went through a small lock a bit farther, and passed newer condo complexes as we neared the Pearl Brewery complex.

We had reservations at Cured which is in there also; it's building used to be the original brewery's administration building.

Our dinner here was great! Tasty drinks, delicious food, and a super cute environment. And lots of cured meats as the name implies. I’d go back here again for sure.

We left dinner and made it to the Main Plaza at the San Fernando Cathedral just in time for the Saga Light Show. The history of San Antonio is projected onto the building in a fantastic display of lights and music. This may have been my favorite thing that we did/saw! Very cool, do not miss IMHO.

And my favorite bar that we visited was Juniper Tar, just a short walk from the plaza. It's a beautiful space and has an extensive menu of original and classic drinks, as well as some of the most friendly bartenders in town. Absolutely recommended!

I'd never heard of ice houses before, but I read that in San Antonio these neighborhood gathering spots are still quite popular. Originating in the 1920's, they were not just a place to get ice but they also provided neighbors a central location to sit, have a beer, and catch up. Texans are quite sentimental about them so we started our Sunday with a few cold beers and some pub grub at The Friendly Spot in Southtown.
This was a fun little peek at the local side to San Antonio, especially welcome after a few days in the tourist area. And who doesn't like to hang out with friends drinking a few cold beers?

James drove us out to Mission San Jose after and we spent a bit of time wandering the grounds of this 250-year-old site. It’s very beautiful and interesting but it is a bit out of town so you kind of need a car for this (although maybe there are tours from the city?)

We killed the last bit of our time with a few day drinks at Paramour, a very hip rooftop bar. Uber-cool millennials, brightly colored chairs and couches, and funky art litter the space. It’s probably not my speed at night (the word pretentious and scene come to mind) but was fun and comfortable during the day.

James dropped us at the airport on his way back to Austin, and after checking in for our respective flights Forest and I found a place for dinner before saying goodbye.

Right before leaving a massive storm rolled in, delaying my flight and canceling hers! Everything’s bigger in Texas!
All San Antonio photos here.

Prior post from this trip: 48 Hours in East Texas

Friday, March 9, 2018

48 Hours in East Texas

Trip date: May 2017

Small town Texas wouldn't generally be high on my list of places to visit but honestly, I love to explore and will go just about anywhere. So when my BFF suggested I meet her at her parent's in Mineloa for a couple days and then do a road trip to San Antonio all I needed to do was find it on a map!

I flew into Dallas Fort Worth airport, a direct flight from Seattle on Alaska Air, and was upgraded to Premium which provided me with free drinks. So far, so good!

Once I had my rental car procured it was a 1 1/2 hour drive east from Dallas to Mineloa, population under 5,000. The drive was mostly flat and uninteresting except for the amazing sunset. WOW!
My drive took me through even smaller towns, many with boarded up main drags, like Grand Saline with just over 3,000 and Fruitvale with barely 400 occupants. When I got to Forest's parent's house it was after 9pm and we had just one dinner option still open, the Jalapeno Tree. Not the best Mexican food but beggars can't be choosers and they served us two rounds of margaritas even though that meant staying past their 10pm closing time.

I was sleeping in the comfy RV parked next to the house so we had a nightcap and caught up without worrying about waking up her parents. The next morning Forest took me to the Mineola Nature Preserve to do a little exploring.
What a fantastic area! We brought her dad's archery gear and used their targets for some fun with bows and arrows (not the first time Forest and I have played Robinhood!) We also did some easy hiking and were rewarded with sights of wildflowers, ponds, buffalo, cranes, an alligator, and a turtle (which just so happened to be taking a nap very near the alligators' open jaws!).
If you happen to be in Mineola I highly recommend checking out the preserve, it is gorgeous!

Lunch was with her parent's at the funny little La Waffalata on Main Street. Mineola's Main Street is pretty much all antique shops so we did some shopping after and I ended up with some great vintage cocktail glasses.

The town was so quiet! No place really to sit and grab a glass of wine in the middle of day until we stumbled upon the brand new SonnyMan's. Although they are a hot dog and beer place, they had a couple of wines by the glass. And the owner couldn't have been nicer, chatting with us, curious as to  why we were in town.

That night after grilled burgers at home, Forest and I drove to Lake Holbrook with a bottle of wine and a wine trivia game. Both the evening and the lake surroundings were beautiful!

We had forgotten a wine opener so in true classy Texas style we used a rock and a stick to force the cork down. Between this move and the archery, I think I have safely secured some kick-ass MacGyver points.

The next morning we said goodbye to Forest's parents as we were heading to San Antonio for the weekend. But before we left Mineola we stopped at Grand Oaks Winery for a tasting. In East Texas. That is probably the last place I expected to find a winery.

I was suspect but they had a few pretty good wines (most of the grapes are grown in Oregon which was interesting) and the grounds are really nice. We ended up enjoying a glass outside on their terrace and enjoying the lovely weather.

It was a short drive from here to the town of Tyler where we were having lunch. I had consulted the Texas Monthly's Top 50 BBQ joints about BBQ in the towns we would be passing through and Stanley's BBQ Pit made the cut.
There was a line when we arrived but it moved pretty fast. Ribs for me, sides of potato salad and coleslaw were shared, and Forest had one of their sandwiches. Not only were the ribs delicious but the space was very fun. Now, this is what I was expecting from small-town Texas!

We made a quick stop to add Forest as a driver on the rental car and then we headed south for a 6 1/2 hour drive, assisted by podcasts and an audiobook.

Next stop San Antonio!

All East Texas photos here.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Chateaux & Wine, Loire Valley- Part 2

Trip date: May 2017

In Amboise, we woke to drizzly skies but I really didn't mind, it was day three in the Loire Valley and we were going to the local market along the river!

The Amboise Sunday market is quite large, selling everything from live fowl, plants, cheeses, charcuterie, prepared food like paella, clothes, kitchen appliances, etc. You name it, they probably have it. I've been to so many markets all over the world but there is always something unfamiliar, in this market it was the Tourteau Fromagé, a French cheesecake of a sort with a charcoal dome. So cool looking!
This being the Loire Valley, what would the market be without a wine tasting? We passed by a tiny stand with quite the crowd of men around, all obviously friends with the man pouring the wine. I spoke some bad French and he started pouring for us too. He was quite the character, an outright flirt actually! And not bad wine either.

We left the market and took a quick stroll through town to do a bit of shopping before making our way back to the Hotel le Manoir to check out. Amboise was a fantastic stop on our trip, it's a bit touristy in parts but there is also so much local vibe. And there's the pretty chateau of course! I loved it!
We hadn't seen much budding or greenery in the vineyards over the last two days and we had found out while speaking to Emily that this was due to the horrible frost the area encountered the month before. Some growers experienced damage to between 60 and 90% of their crops! This was on top of a serious frost situation in 2016 also. Now driving west we finally saw more green in the vineyards which was a nice sight.

We arrived in the Chinon AOC and made our way to the village of Saint-Germain-sur-Vienne. We were en route to visit some friends of Forest's who invited us to join them for lunch, tour their vineyards, and taste their wine. That is a very nice offer and we were looking forward to it. Imagine our surprise when we drove up a gated road that led to a beautiful chateau!
Chateau du Petit Thouars has been in Sébastian's family since the 17th century; after the passing of his father he and his wife D'arcy and their two children moved into the chateau full time. He took over the helm of the business while his children play happily in the grand rooms decorated with gorgeous paintings and antiques. We were absolutely delighted to be having lunch with the family, drinking their wines, and hearing stories of the chateau and vineyards. To be clear, this was my first time dining in a private chateau!!!

After lunch, Sébastian took us on a walk around the vast property, the vineyards, the cave, and then we settled in to taste through his lineup. His Chenin Blanc and rosé were absolutely lovely! And the Chinons were so refined and at such an incredible price point! More shopping took place before we bid him and his family thank you and goodbye. By the way, the chateau has some really wonderful visits/tours and they also have a farmhouse on the property that is available on Airbnb, go check them out!

We drove the short distance to Fontevraud L'Abbaye and checked into the Domaine de Mestre, originally an abbey from the 12th century. The main house is now a hotel and restaurant, and our two-bed room up the flight of stairs could not have been more charming!
We enjoyed a lovely Savennièrs outside in the courtyard, surrounded by old stone buildings that use to make up the abbey's farm. I think the proprietor thought we were quite posh as this was one of their most expensive bottles at 45Euro, but we hadn't spent a dime all afternoon and I really wanted to try it!

The nearby town of Montsoreau lies on the Loire River about halfway between Tours and Angers. We drove in to take a look at the Chateau Montsoreau, the only chateau in the Loire Valley to have been built directly on the riverbed. After being owned by 20+ different families since the 1500's, the chateau is now an art museum.

Another glass of wine with a castle view was had on the terrace of the restaurant Le Montsorelli before moving inside for a very good dinner. The restaurant offered a prix fixe for 29Euros and we chose a Bourgueil from the nearby AOC to accompany our meal. This is a pretty small wine region in the Loire and a wine that was also on my list to try since I've never seen it on a menu in the states. It was lovely!

Back at the hotel, we decided on a cognac nightcap before turning in. Another fantastic day!

Our room included breakfast which was served across the courtyard in a building that could have been an old stone barn. There were pastries, cheeses, rillets, meats, eggs, etc. Exactly how I like to start my day.

Forest and I had read that there was a dolman nearby so after checking out and getting directions from the hotel owner we drove around the small roads that cut through vineyards and farms in search of it.
We could not find it. Back and forth on the road, we stopped a local and he pointed back the way we came. We turned around and drove until we passed a sign saying DOLMAN pointing in the direction from which we just drove. We stopped on a farm and asked the man in his garden and he claimed to know nothing about it. The sign was just outside his drive! Maddening! We finally gave up and headed to Saumur.
The Loire River is more populated here, the town of Saumur spreading onto a large island in the middle. The Chateau de Saumur was built in the 10th century as a castle before becoming a chateau and has also been used as an army barracks and a prison.
There's quite a bit of construction happening now, those old houses need renovations from time to time! But the gold fleur de lis flagpole remains uncovered and shines brightly in the sun. It's a beautiful chateau to walk around with fabulous views down onto the town and the river.

And then it was time to start making our way back to Paris. One last stop, this time in Tours as I really wanted to visit the Cathedral. I was not disappointed!
Built in 1547 this gothic church is massive and filled with incredible stained glass windows, towering vaults, and pretty chapels. It is well worth even a quick stop in Tours should you be in the area.

We went in search of lunch and being as it was a Monday and a holiday there wasn't much open. We came across Le Turon and luckily were given the last available table. What an unexpected delicious lunch we had! An amuse bouche, beautiful plating, and one last delicious bottle of Loire Valley wine.
On the road back to Paris, we passed fields of mustard seed, so bright it looked like someone spilled buckets of yellow paint across them! The smell of the fields and the vineyards and the river all mixing together; I loved spending time in this region.

Bottom line... like great wine at even better prices? Dramatic scenery? History? Chateaux? Get yourself to the Loire Valley!

All Loire Valley photos here.

Other posts from this trip:
Chateaux & Wine, Loire Valley- Part-1 here.