Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Expect the Unexpected While Traveling

I'm on my way to France to team up with my bestie for two weeks of eating, drinking, and general merriment. We decided to meet in Lyon for a few days before heading to Burgundy and then on up to Paris. We are well prepared with reservations and the like.

Last night as I went to bed I got a text from Air France. "Your flight from Paris to Lyon has been cancelled. We are sorry for the inconvenience."

Not what you want to hear at 11pm on the eve of your vacation. Sigh. Turns out Air France has striking pilots (surprise!). I sent Forrest a text letting her know I would have to grab a train ticket and not to pick me up at Lyon's airport. Luckily she hadn't gone south yet and so we switched our plan to have her pick me up in Paris. Road trip!

When I got to the SeaTac this morning and glanced at my watch I noticed the battery had died. I also seem to have packed the headphone jack to my noise-canceling headset in my checked bag. If that's my "things happen in three" I'll happily take that and chalk it all up to first-world problems.

2 hours later...

I just found out that Delta has discontinued it's in air duty free shopping. WTF?? That is one of my highlights of international travel! NOW I'm feeling a bit rattled!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Somewhere over the Canadian Rockies

Thursday, August 14, 2014

When in Rome?

A friend recently asked me for recommendations for Rome but I didn't have much to offer. The last time I was in Rome it was just for a short weekend, really not enough time, before sailing the Mediterranean.

I would recommend the Hotel Modigliani, which had been recommended to us by friends. It's a great location, very central, and although our room was tiny (by American standards) we had a balcony looking out to the hotel's back patio, where jasmine and citrus grew, scenting the air. The hotel has a good breakfast room and the staff were incredibly nice.

I would also recommend taking a walk to the Trevi Fountain, tossing in a coin (to insure your return to Rome) before making your way up the Spanish Steps. If you happen to do this at dusk when the light on the city is magical, all the better. Sure these are on every 'top things to see in Rome' list, and for good reason! Order an Aperol spritz or an espresso and do a little people watching.
I would also recommend the touristy Hop On, Hop Off bus if you have limited time as we did. Especially if you do it on your first day you can get a sense for where things are at in the city. And of course, you can get off and see some of the sights, explore an unknown neighborhood, jump back on, listen to the guide, etc. If you are traveling with friends you might want to make sure that you all know where you are going to "hop off" or else you might accidentally get separated, which I don't recommend!
I would absolutely recommend wandering the ruins of the Roman Forum and seeing the Colosseum. In fact, you should make reservations for a tour of the formerly not accessible lower and upper levels. This tour is amazing! You're taken to the lower level, which use to be under the Colosseum floor. Slaves, gladiators, animals, etc. were kept here and brought up using dumb waiter style apparatus'. It's awe-inspiring standing there, looking up and out of the stadium's walls.

The guide continues to the normal levels where spectators viewed the events. And then they will let you in to locked passages that lead up to the very top of the venue, with dramatic views to both below and the city around you. You must book this in advance, and they only allow a certain number of these tours per day.
You can wander the Forum on your own (there are plenty of self walks out there) or as part of the Colosseum tour. We did it on our own with the help of Lonely Planet, it's such a fascinating area to explore!
Of course I recommend touring the Vatican but again, a little planning goes a long way! With the help of the Rick Steve's guide (we'd never used it before but this tip alone sold me) we had reserved timed tickets in advance. This allowed us to skip the ridiculous queue outside and head directly to the entrance.

The only way to enter the Sistine Chapel is to go through the Vatican museum, but the museum is really interesting so it's hardly a bother. We picked a few rooms to explore along the way and soon we were stepping into the (not)peaceful chapel.

Once we had sufficiently crooked our necks, inspecting all the intricate paintings, the Rick Steve's guide proved itself again by directing us to a "tours only" exit which is a short cut to St Peter's Cathedral. No one stopped us or asked which tour we were a part of, and in minutes we were inside the cathedral, again skipping multiple hour long queues.
Did I mention that we were in the church on May 21, 2011? Hilarity ensued.

I wish I had more recommendations on dining in Rome but I have always found that the big foodie cities of the world require careful planning or they can end up serving you the most banal meals. We had researched, made lists, etc. but the city is huge and without knowing for sure where we'd be at any given time, our lists were a bust.

Drinks were easy to come by anywhere; Aperol spritz, beer, wine, martinis, no problem.

Our best meal was a lunch we had after visiting the Vatican. We hopped in a cab and sped over to La Campana restaurant, which is one of the oldest in Rome. The interior was cold and boring but the food was amazing!

Fried artichokes, fried zucchini flowers, pasta with truffles... we all loved it!

And upon leaving, and deciding to walk to the nearby Piazza Novona, we stumbled upon Antica Norcineria, a fantastic shop filled with amazing deli items. An unexpected opportunity to stock up on items to take home.

And of course we had pizza at Forno in the Campo di Fiorini one afternoon. The bianci was good, the mushroom was better. But I would have happily just grazed the market that was going on instead.

And on our last night we fancied it up and dined at the Michelin starred Mirabelle. The food was good, none of us were blown away, but the view was amazing. We had a table on the balcony, overlooking part of the city for sunset. The air was heavy with jasmine and the whole thing felt very over the top!
All photos from Rome are here.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Dark and Stormy, New Orleans Style

I've been to New Orleans many times, my first was when I was in high school; I still remember trying frog legs and buying a tacky t-shirt that proclaimed "Shit Happens". Indeed it does. Dayne and I spent four years in a row, traveling to NOLA each July for Tales of the Cocktail, until 2010, which happens to be the year Forest joined us.

When Forest had a wedding to attend in Florida earlier this spring we thought it made perfect sense to meet up in The Big Easy for a girl's trip, without all the crowds, schedules, and the heat that TOTC brings (granted that event is a hell of a good time even with all those things!)

We rented a very traditional shotgun style house in the Bywater via Airbnb. Although the decor was a bit on the crazy side (let's just say there were a lot of photos, paintings, drawings, etc of penises, or should that be peni?) the house itself was absolutely perfect. The owner had bought the property next door and had the desecrated building that sat on it raised. He then turned the space into an awesome garden and outdoor patio space, complete with outdoor shower! There was a small studio that he used for his massage practice which is where he was living while we were there.

Staying here, in this traditional style of house with an owner who loved his neighborhood, really gave us a taste of local life.The neighborhood is quirky, artsy, rough, and friendly all at the same time. There are plenty of places to eat and drink in the Bywater and it was about a 20 minute walk to the French Quarter, a good way to work off some of those cocktails while checking out the local architecture.

My arrival evening plans to have ribs at The Joint and then head to Baccanal for some live music were squashed when storms hit from Dallas to the east coast, delaying my flight into town. Forest and Thibault were nice enough to pick up some ribs for me which made for good morning snacking at least!

My first day in town overlapped with Forest's boyfriend's last day in town, so we decided to do a cemetery tour to complete his NOLA sightseeing. I had been to Lafayette #1, so this time we did St Louis #1 which is just outside the French Quarter. Again I chose Save Our Cemeteries as they are doing such a great job of helping to restore and protect these amazing cities of dead. Among the famous in St. Louis #1 are Homer Plessy (1896 Plessy v Ferguson civil rights ruling), both New Orleans' first mayor and its first black mayor, and voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. Actor Nicolas Cage has a weird pyramid tomb there for when he kicks it (cue "dying to get in" joke here).

After our tour we headed to Napoleon's House for muffalettas and Pimm's cups. It's my absolute, must-visit, every time, place in the French Quarter.

That night as we made happy hour martinis back at our house, the skies, which had been a tad ominous all day, opened up and started dumping rain like I have only seen in the mid-west and the south. We had plans to meet friends of Forest's, who happened to be visiting from Paris as well, at the new cocktail bar Belloq, but instead we picked them up in our cab to save them from drowning!

Once at Belloq we sat stunned by the rain but at least we had wonderful libations. The bar is inside The Hotel Modern, which also houses another bar that we almost sat in by mistake (although that menu looked good too). Belloq is owned by the same folks who run Cure, it is a dark and sexy space, turning out very nice craft cocktails.

We had hard-to-get dinner reservations at Peche, they had just received a James Beard award, and had planned to walk the four blocks but this weather was not going to make that possible. As we exited the hotel in order to hail a cab we saw lighting striking in all directions, heard the thunder, and witnessed the streets overflow with water!

photo courtesy of Forest Collins

It took forever to get a cab as we weren't the only ones caught in this flash flood! When we finally managed to get one, we had to take our shoes off and wade in almost shin deep water to get in it! We drove, with water half way up the wheels, or maybe floated was more like it. It was crazy! And a bit scary! And when we finally reached the restaurant, over 40 minutes late and carrying our shoes in our hands, we were literally dripping wet!

After the boys went into the restroom to wring out their shirts, and we ordered a round of cocktails, we forgot about the puddles we were making and set about ordering a ton of delicious food. Peche is casual and fun and the sampler appetizer platter is not to be missed!

The next morning the streets were dry and the city was pretending like nothing had ever happened. Forest and I were on our own and set out for a quick breakfast at Satsuma's Cafe near our house. We then made our way to the French Quarter, walking and exploring the area along the way.

We planned on having a very fun day but what happened was a truly epic adventure as only New Orleans can deliver.

As we made our way from the Bywater and through the Marigny, we came across a group of men gathered around two tables on the sidewalk. Each table was piled high with boiled crawfish, crab, clams, etc. We were invited to join in, and obviously didn't turn the invitation down. After a bit of pinching, sucking, and cracking we were back on our way. We had a lunch to get to after all!
Many of the city's restaurants offer 25 cent martini lunches. Being two girls who love a martini we were intrigued and decided to check out the lunch offered by Antoine's. You order a 3-course lunch of classic dishes such as baked oysters, vichyssoise, and crawfish etoufee. What we didn't know was that the 'martini' at Antoine's changes daily and the day we were there they were lemon drops. We ended up ordering classic martinis anyway, not at 25 cents though! If you are keen to try one of these lunches there are a few places offering them.

Feeling good after our lunch we met up with Mathilde & David at the newly refurbished Carrousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone. There are certain places you just have to go while in the French Quarter, so after a sazerac and a spin around, we were off, taking them on a little booze cruise. We had a quick stop in the Old Absinthe House where we stole glances of the beautiful stone absinthe louche in the the private back room, and compared a French and a Swiss absinthe. Then passed a jazz wedding processional on our way to the French 75 Bar for cocktails of the same name.
photo courtesy Forest Collins
From here it was on to SoBou, the newest restaurant and bar from the Brennen Family. Craft cocktails just south of Bourbon street and a great ambiance!

We split up at this point, Forest and I heading to Toup's Meatery where we had a huge and delicious board of house-cured meats and accompaniments. Then back to our Bywater home for sing-a-longs, Drunk History,  and nightcaps.

It was one of the best, boozy, delicious days I've ever had. From the moment I got out of bed until I retired that night, nothing but fun, fun, fun!

On our last day we had intended to watch the Mardi Gras Indians parade, in honor of mother's day, but after we had delicious pastrami omelets at Jim's in the Bywater and walked to the Quarter, the skies opened up once again and the parade was called off. We grabbed a cab and headed back to our area of town, making a stop at Fauberg Wines, a funny little retail and wine bar, where we relaxed with a bottle of rosé. The weather cleared so we Grabbed a bottle to-go, went to near-by Gene's PoBoy and ordered hot sausage & cheese sandwiches also to-go.

W kicked off our shoes and set up in our lovely garden, digging into the best sandwich that was ever created and sipping on chilled rosé.

A refreshing outdoor shower, a cold martini for Happy Hour and off we went to regroup with Mathilde and David, this time for cocktails at the beautiful and delicious Cure cocktail bar. Dinner that night was at Sylvain which was lovely as well, and as I started in on my special of crawfish gumbo I realized I had eaten those delicious mudbugs each day of my stay.

Our Bywater Shotgun-style house

Even storms in New Orleans are more fun!

All photos here

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Walla Walla Wine Country, Now With Cocktails!

Each spring the annual Cayuse Release Weekend happens in Walla Walla, an excuse for a brief little getaway, some great wine, and good times with friends. This year it was a girls only trip.

Friday afternoon we stopped for lunch in Ellensburg at the absolutely charming Yellow Church Cafe. We found the cafe in a quick on-line search and were super happy with our meals; grilled cheese with bacon!!

We had made arrangements to stop to taste Goedhart, which doesn't have a tasting room anymore but is being poured at Hedges, in Prosser. The problem was that I had Hogue in my head and went to the wrong winery. By the time we made it to Hedges they were closed. We felt terrible missing our appointment so we stopped in Fidelitas for a taste to help get over it. Nice malbecs here and a great view of the valley.

Arriving in town, we checked into our normal spot, the Holiday Inn, and had them call us a cab. Besides spending the days tasting wine I was employing my girlfriends to help me check out the emerging cocktail scene in downtown Walla Walla.  Freddy G showed up within minutes and was our evening driver for the weekend. He was a great sport as we went out early and came back late, sometimes requesting a bottle stop on the way home!

The first night we had wonderful drinks at Whitehouse Crawford before a great dinner at Saffron. Afterwards we had nightcaps at the Public House 124 where owner Matthew Price-Huntington was kind enough to give us tastes of unique spirits and mix us up a few rounds. 

The next day was all about the wine. We tasted mainly in the south and downtown area, repeat favorites included Cayuse, Rotie, and Mark Ryan (and an incredible taco bar they had set up). We also went to Isenhower and had a very nice semi private tour and tasting, and also had an appointment at Doubleback which is delicious juice but very spendy. Our weekend favorite was tasting at Maison Bleue's new room right downtown. This wine is absolutely amazing, if you are a fan of granache you want this on your 'do-not-miss' list.

That evening, after dropping the wine and the car off and calling our buddy Freddy G, we had more delicious cocktails at The Vineyard Lounge before having dinner at Brassiere 4, which is perhaps my favorite Walla Walla restaurant. 

Heading home on Sunday, we stopped in Prosser to have lunch at Wine O'Clock. Horrible name, very good lunch. It is actually a winery, though we thought the wines a bit simple. And besides the good food the cafe had vintage Julia Child television shows playing on their tv. Very cool.

You can read the full write up that I did about the cocktail scene on World's Best Bars.


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Capri Day Trip

One morning back in May of 2011, after a lovely breakfast on the sunny patio in Sorrento, we boarded the fast ferry to the island of Capri (pronounced CAP-ree, not like the juice box). The large ferry whisked us to the main port in just 25 minutes. From here we took a funicular up to the charming town of Capri and then boarded a bus which drove us up to Anacapri, then finally we loaded onto single chairlifts for a gorgeous (ie: terrifying) ride up to the very summit of the island.

It really was beautiful traveling over the tended gardens of the locals, seeing small farms, and of course the views of the Mediterranean. I just hadn't expected this single, barely strapped in chairlift. I had been expecting a gondola which in itself is a scary thing for me.

The views at the top were absolutely incredible though and this was well worth the effort (ie: terror). There is some nice space also to sit and relax with a drink while soaking up the views and the sun. Recommended.

We returned to Anacapri via the chairlift (I think there is an option to hike down) and wandered the pretty whitewashed streets until we found a little square and sat for lunch at Il Saraceno Trattoria. We weren't expecting much in this tourist area but the food was very good and our table outside on the terrace was exactly what we had hoped for.

Walking off our lunch by shopping around we stopped in at Sandalo Caprese. Friends had recommended the legendary shop, the owner still making shoes by hand. Both Dayne and I picked a few styles, had our feet measured and were sent off to finish our shopping while they created our custom sandals. To this day Dayne still declares these the most comfortable "mandales" he owns.

We grabbed a convertible taxi for the ride back down to the marina and joined a tour out to the Blue Grotto. Our pretty wooden boat took about 10 of us along the coast of the island to the rocky cove. Here there were a handful of small 2-man rowboats, each with its own captain, ready to shuttle us into the mysterious grotto.

We were the last tour of the day and the surf had gotten extremely choppy making it precarious to climb out of our boat and into the tiny dingy. Dayne and I sat on the floorboards and our captain explained that he had to time the swells of the ocean in order to get us safely inside the seemingly small opening in the cliff. This is hard enough when the sea is normal but this serious chop was adding a new level of danger. He cautioned us to lay totally flat until we were inside, he himself had to remain standing in order to maneuver the boat, he crossed himself and looked to the heavens and with that we shot through the tiny opening.

All danger and fears disappeared once we were inside of this tranquil and luminescent grotto. The water was one of those blue colors found only in nature. The temperature and air calm and relaxing. Our captain serenaded us with a beautiful song, the acoustics memorizing.

Soon we had to brace ourselves for the exit, again the timing had to be just right against the angry waves outside. We made it safely, clamored ungracefully back into our boat and headed to the marina, one of the boats towing the tiny rowboats as a thank you for allowing our tour to happen under such conditions.

We returned to Sorrento by "Jet" having truly enjoyed every bit of the beautiful island. Even if our outing was peppered with bits of fear!

All photos from Capri here.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Cruising the French Riviera

Our ship left the quaint coastal towns of Italy and headed to the swankiness of the French Riviera. First up, Cannes!

The film festival had ended just days before so sadly, star-watching was out (15 years prior I had been in the city during the festival, which was eye-candy overdose!) but this city is a star all on its own. Slip upon slip of mega-yachts, gorgeous beaches, pricy boutiques, and opulent hotels line the main strip La Croisette.

We found a huge farmers market and happily wandered the stalls of unique offerings; vegetables, fish, olive oils, patés, bakery goods, etc. I think the best view into a city's culinary style is to check out the food markets, plus it's just damn fun to see so many unfamiliar items. And tasty.

After a quick rosé break down by the waterfront, we continued down La Croisette making our way to the famed Hotel InterContinental Carlton and took seats outside on the patio for drinks and snacks. Posh.

We shopped around town as we made our way back to the ship via tender. A quick clean up, a cheerful in-room happy hour, and we were back on the tender.
Most cruises have at least one full day at sea, but since all our destinations were fairly close together we left each of our port of calls in the evening and awoke each morning to a new gem. Two exceptions were overnights in Cannes and Monaco. We took advantage of the anchor and headed back into Cannes for an absolutely delicious dinner at Le Relais des Semailles in the charming old town.

We chose to spend our second day in Cannes on the ship, the entire day spent lounging in the sun. They opened the marina again so Dayne tried some stand-up paddle boarding. Later that afternoon DeLille presented a tasting class pitting DeLille wines again some Old World ones. It was just a really relaxing day topped off with a special dinner by Chef Moore, this one better than the first as he mentioned he also got to go shopping at Cannes' farmers market.

On day six we awoke in Saint-Tropez. Lauren and I had morning massages in the ship's spa and then we all took the tender to shore. We spent the morning ogling the luxury speed boats, exploring cobble-stoned lanes, and watching the red and white outfitted contestants of an annual regatta as they discussed strategy, or maybe rosé.
Lunch of moules mariniere was had along the marina in a restaurant with a slide-open ceiling, followed by gelato and more yacht shopping. We headed back to the ship to soak up some rays and take in the view of Saint-Tropez.

Our next port was Monaco where we had two days during the infamous Grand Prix. I wrote about our experience here.

Our nine day cruise finished up in Nice. It's cheezy to comment on how nice this was, right? Oh well.

We walked a short way from where we disembarked to the Hotel Suisse. Our room had a balcony with a fantastic view of the beach and the town, I only wished we had more days to enjoy it but we were just there for an overnight.

Nice is another city I had been to years ago and I was really excited to be there again. We started by exploring the flea market in Cours Saleya, it just happened to be Monday, the only day of the week it runs. It is a big market, filled with an assortment of antique silver, linens, paintings, dishes, etc.

Then after a delicious boulangerie breakfast we walked to the Musee Marc Chagall. I absolutely love Chagall and found this to be one of the most beautiful collections of his work I have ever seen. When in Nice I'd say this is a do-not-miss!

We headed back to Cours Saleya, many of the market stalls now packing up, and chose Le Quai Restaurant for a very good lunch.
That evening we had our last dinner at Luc Salsedo. It was the perfect end to our trip, delicious food that was regional and seasonal, a comfortable but not stuffy dining room, and great service.

We were up the next morning before the city fully awoke and had one last glimpse of the Mediterranean before catching our flight home. 

Photos from the French Riviera are here.