Saturday, August 13, 2016

Chasing Butterflies and Waterfalls

After spending Christmas 2015 on Ipanema Beach in Rio, we hopped a flight to Iguazu. There are two airports and we flew into the Brazil side based on cost and schedule.  We grabbed a taxi and headed to the Argentina side, which is where we were staying. The drive was short but the line at the border, even being late in the evening, was extremely long. Taxi from the airport in Brazil to our hotel in Iguazu, Argentina was about 140 Real.

It took some time and questioning a few of the locals before our taxi driver found our hotel- TTupa Boutique Hotel.  I consider this more of a motel, approximately ten rooms, all with kitchenettes and living rooms, with front doors leading out to the pool and breakfast/ bar area. Rooms were bare but adequate and, as we saw when we walked around town, there wasn't really any place we would have chosen that looked nicer. Our breakfast was included but unfortunately each day it was barely more than some sad looking fruit and various breads. I got by with dulce de leche on toast along with cafe con leche. I'm all about the milk products apparently.

In the morning, we set out for a walk around town and found red dirt roads, many boarded up businesses, overgrown yards, and crumbling homes. Perhaps Iguazu was once a thriving destination, or perhaps they had planned to be, but it seemed full on third-world now.

We wandered through the Mercado (really, the mercado was a series of shops all selling olives and sausages), tasted a few and purchased some for aperos. The olives were really quite good, had some interesting marinades, and were being stuffed by shop workers right on site.

From here we walked to the viewpoint where we could see both Paraguay and Brazil just across the river.

We loaded up on booze and more snacks at the grocery store nearest our hotel. The selections were sparse but as with our travels around the globe we always make due.

It was hot and muggy so we all had a refreshing swim, a nap, and then regrouped for cocktail hour. Our hotel was very adamant about not drinking your own booze but we know how to get around that as well.

That evening we walked down dark streets with crumbling sidewalks to a nearby parrilla for dinner. The steak and sausages were grilled right in front of us on an outside grill and it was delicious. The wine which was recommended ended up being completely overpriced and we felt we had gotten a bit scammed on that. Oh well, we retired to our hotel for another round of nightcaps from our own stash.

The next morning we hired a taxi to take us to the Brazil side of Iguazu Falls. We had a round trip negotiated price of 500 Argentinan Pesos along with an agreed upon time to pick us up. It took about 30 minutes to go through the border and then about another 30 minutes in a queue at the falls to get our tickets. We were all very excited to spend the day hiking around! We had been told that the Brazil side is best done first as it has the jaw-dropping panoramas, while the Argentina side gets you basically on top of the falls. After doing both, I'd totally agree with this.

Everyone has to board the park bus which takes you to the trail head, and almost immediately we were face to face with the breathtaking views. But as we spent our day hiking the easy trails, the views got more and more spectacular. It was amazing and I've never seen anything like it or felt such a force of nature, even having been to Niagara. There are a whopping 275 falls!

The park was over ridden with tourists and the raccoon-like coati, which although cute will bite you and try to take your food (I'm speaking of the coati). And as we made our way down closer and closer to the bottom of the falls there were pretty bright blue butterflies everywhere. It was magical.

We finally made it to the bottom where you can walk all the way out, one of the falls crashing to the level of the walkway, and peering over the side where it continues down another drop. We were all completely soaked and giddy with the sheer power of the rushing water and being so close to it! These falls run brown because of the logging of the forests, a very visual lesson also.

It was nice to return for a dip in the pool and take a nap after all the excitement of the day. That night we had a very lovely (if not slow) dinner at La Reuda which was the nicest of the restaurants we had seen in town.

After another bad breakfast the next morning, we called a taxi, this time to take us to the Argentinian side of Iguazu Falls. Our ride cost us about 200 Pesos each way.

We spent over five hours and hiked over 10 miles here! The park is made up of three major trails with a small train that takes you to the furthest; Devil's Throat. Based on the queue we decided to hike to Devil's Throat and were glad we did, it was an easy flat hike along the train tracks and we had the opportunity to see hundreds of butterflies.

We could hear Devil's Throat before we could see it. We could also smell sweet mandarin oranges hanging in the trees. Butterflies were getting free rides on hikers, taking in the salt they needed to survive. This place has it all; sights and scents!

There is no way to describe the sheer power and awe that you come face to face with as you walk out on the walkway to the edge of Devil's Throat. Over half of the river's water flows over this 2,297 foot column-like fall. Spectacular to say the least. There's a video in the photo album, link at the end.

From here we rode the train back to the main hub, stopped for a casual lunch of empanadas and beers, and then hiked out to the Upper Falls trail. You cross right over the top of the falls, the roaring water flowing right under your feet as you cross the metal slatted bridges.

As we made our way to the Lower Falls trail we came upon a bunch of monkeys having entirely too much fun. Two were using the tents at the snack bar as trampolines even!
We had planned on taking one of the boats that get you up close and personal with the falls but because of earlier rains the water level was too high for the boats that just do a quick 1-hour tour. Since we didn't want to spend 4+ hours on the other option we skipped it in favor of the hikes but I'm sure it would be absolutely stunning to do.

We could easily see across the river to the trails we had been on yesterday over in Brazil. It was amazing that the views of the falls never got old, I mean we saw A LOT of waterfalls! At the end of the day we were even rewarded with a beautiful rainbow as we headed across one of the last bridges!
After all that hiking, it was great to cool off with a cold drink and a refreshing pool.
We had dinner that night at Bocamora, which has outside terrace seating and views of Brazil and Paraguay. It was dark by the time we got there, so the views were kindof lost on us. The twinkling lights in the distance, through the jungle were nice though!

The next day we checked out and hung around the pool before calling a taxi to the airport. This time there was no one at the border when we drove through, our ride was about 350 Pesos to the Brazil side.

We had an easy 2-hour flight back to Rio where we were all excited to spend another seven days. And the next was New Years Eve!

All Iguazu photos here, warning... there are A LOT of waterfall pictures!

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Intro to Rio

Everyone is talking about Rio de Janeiro and the Olympics. Not all of it is good. But I found it to be an amazingly beautiful city when I was there during my 12th annual New Year's Eve trip.

My official hashtag last year was #FuckOff2015, life had been a bit of a bitch, and I was looking forward to my vacation. I decided to splurge and bought a First Class roundtrip ticket, I'm a fan of the lay flat bed! This was my "Happy Birthday!", "Merry Christmas!", "Happy New Year!", #FuckOff2015!,  present to myself. I'm a good shopper if I do say so.

On Christmas Eve I checked in at SeaTac's Delta Lounge, grabbed an espresso and a bagel and ordered a mimosa, only to be told that they were $8. Not expensive mind you, but really? I just doled out $$$ on a 1st class ticket and you can't give me a complimentary mimosa made with prosecco? Lame.

I boarded the plane and got settled in my lay flat chair/bed complete with Westin down pillow and Heavenly comforter for my first leg to Atlanta. I ordered a glass of champagne only to be told that they don't stock bubbles on domestic flights. Really? It was Christmas Eve and I heard at least half of the 1st class cabin ask for a glass.

Bloody Mary in hand (made with gin please) I settled in to read my magazines only to find out that none of the overhead lights worked, not just mine- everyone's! So you don't always get what you pay for, and Delta I'm looking at you!

My next leg from Atlanta to Rio was much better with even bigger lay flat spaces, champagne, multi-course meal, Tumi bag filled with nice products, etc.

First world (and class) bitching over let's talk about Rio!!!

I went to bed after dinner and woke up at 9am on Christmas day to the plane landing amidst the sprawling city. My friend Kate had landed just a bit earlier from Geneva and was waiting for me in the terminal. We grabbed a cab to our hotel, The Sol Ipanema right on Ipanema beach, for R$76 or about $24. They had Kate and my large double room ready, so we dropped our bags, changed into swimsuits and headed upstairs to the rooftop bar and pool.

The rooftop area is very small but it has amazing views of the entire length of the beach as well as the hills of the Vidigal favela. Caipirinhas acquired, we soaked up the sun and snoozed off the jet lag. Forest and Thibault arrived not long after and the four of us spent an amazing day, never leaving the rooftop!
As it was Christmas, I had packed a special bottle of bubbles. We all brought little presents for each other and had a really wonderful time toasting and unwrapping gifts. We swam and drank and watched the beach fill up with people as the day went on. It was absolutely fantastic!
We witnessed our first Rio sunset, which is quite possibly the most stunning sunset I've ever seen. It was chased by a rising full moon under who's glow we continued to swim.

Finally we were spent! Tired from swimming and playing and drinking all day we had a not-so-memorable dinner in the hotel's restaurant, an Italian-themed place! Sometimes it just doesn't matter.

The next morning we had a very good breakfast which was included in our hotel price. We were introduced to delicious watermelon juice and Pão de queijo, which are basically the national snack of cheese balls similar to gougéres (but gluten free).

After breakfast we headed off to find a bank to get cash, it is very important to only use official bank machines that are inside of banks for cash withdrawls. There is the very real issue of ATM fraud and even being careful throughout my trip, my card was still compromised. Luckily my bank refunded me fully.

We would be flying to Argentina later that night so we packed up and stored our bags for the day with our hotel. They also outfitted us with beach chairs, towels, and umbrellas- again all included in the room rate. As we were getting settled on the beach at Post 9, a local man came over and showed us how to set up our umbrella through our beach bag handles, securing it against thieves. We thought he was doing this for tips but when Forest handed him a dollar he waived her off. Turns out he worked at the barracas (small stands that rent chairs and umbrellas as well as sell drinks and food) that ran the area we sat in.

Being on the beach in Ipanema was amazing. There was so much people watching that I couldn't get past the first page of the book I had brought. Young, old, fit, not-so-fit. Every woman, no matter what shape or age, wearing the famous "dental floss" thong bikini. That was not always so great to see, but everyone was having a ball so who gives a shit?

We ordered caipis and coconuts from our barracas. We watched the numerous walking venders who sold everything from bikins to mate. The people next to me were very excited about what they were getting to eat so I asked them what it was. Warm bread stuffed with ground beef and cheese, a snack called esfihas, and it was delicious!

After a few hours we headed back up to our rooftop pool for a swim and some shade. We got cleaned up and headed to dinner at Garota where we had incredible "grill it yourself" steak complete with the traditional Brazilian accompaniments of rice, french fries, farofa (toasted cassava flour), and molho à campanha which is a Brazilian salsa of sorts.
We caught the tail end of the sunset as we headed back to the hotel and grabbed a taxi to the airport for our flight to Iguazu. We'd be back in four days to explore the city more in-depth and I couldn't wait!
All Rio photos here

Friday, July 22, 2016

48 Hours Vancouver

Lauren, Aaron and I checked out of The Willows Inn May 2016 and hit the road for Canada. Well we actually went south for a bit to have breakfast at The Little Cheerful in Bellingham. Although the cafe was not really what I would consider cheerful, the hashbrowns that they are known for lived up to the hype. I got mine loaded with bacon and cheddar with an over-medium egg. When my breakfast first came the egg looked over hard, but when I broke into it is was perfect. Two minutes later the waiter came over with another egg, telling me the chef didn't like the look of that other one. I assured him it was great but also was very impressed with that gesture, this isn't a fancy dining spot! They only accept cash if you go.

We were heading to Vancouver for a couple of days to eat and drink delicious things. Aaron had never been, and it had been a few years since either Lauren or I had been, so we were off!

We tried to stop in at the Duty Free at the Peace Arch border but they were closed (it was a Tuesday afternoon) so we made the quick 5-minute hop over to the Truck Stop crossing and loaded up on scotch, gin, and wine. God forbid we have two nights in an Airbnb without provisions!

Once we arrived in the city we headed directly to Phnom Penh in Chinatown for lunch. Based on strong recommendations from one of Aaron's friends, we ordered their chicken wings, butter beef, and spring rolls. The latter was basically inedible but the wings and butter beef were absolutely delicious!

It was time to check into our Airbnb so we made our way to the West End and found the boutique that we were directed to pick up the keys at. Only problem was that the shopkeeper had given our keys to someone staying at another property. She was a bit of a ding dong and insisted that they would come back soon upon finding the keys didn't work. Why she couldn't just call them we never did find out. Luckily we didn't wait long and found our cool 3-bedroom apartment in the aptly named The Lauren building easily.

Our next challenge was parking, the area is zone parking only so we had to overnight a 10-minute walk away. Not really an issue except there were overnight parking charges we hadn't planned for and it was never very clear if parking 24-hours at this lot was allowed. We rolled the dice and my car was still there the next day so all was good.

A nap, some freshening up, an apero, and we were out to meet a friend and her husband at Bao Bei for drinks and dinner. This adorable restaurant has been around for years now but I had yet to go so was really looking forward to it.

Drinks at the bar were excellent! Interesting menu and lovely presentation. Our party of 5 then got lucky and were seated at the big table in the very back of the shotgun shaped space, allowing us some privacy to get loud (as we tend to do) and a view of the entire space.

We pretty much ordered the entire menu and it pretty much rocked! So many delicious items; some standouts for me were the pork belly buns, fried rice, and the Chinese donuts with dulce de leche!

We headed over to the newly opened Kissa Tanto just around the block. Owned by the folks from the Diamond, there was an obvious similarity as we ascended the staircase. The space is drop-dead gorgeous, we felt like we were in a formal cocktail bar aboard a luxury ship. The menu was a little odd but we each ordered a drink. When they arrived they were all pretty to look at, unfortunately not one of them were actually tasty. But the really disappointing part was when the waiter brought us our bill and made a comment like " was everything as delicious as usual?", we all just looked at him and looked at our ½ empty drinks, to which he did not catch on. Very unfortunate as the bar itself is lovely and I really wanted to love it.

Our friends headed home and we decided to stop in at the also fairly new Juniper bar. Now this was a great stop all around. Awesome menu of gins and gin-cocktails, coupled with a super friendly bartender; Martin. Martin gave us tastes of unfamiliar spirits and recommendations on other places around town. I would absolutely suggest a stop in at Juniper if you are in town!

We started our next day the way everyone should in Vancouver, dim sum! And there is no better place for dim sum than in Richmond. Chef Tony gets a lot of talk and for good reason, the place is crazy! Glitzy lighting, white tablecloths, and a huge screen presenting a slide show of dim sum offerings, it was like dim sum in Miami during the 80's!

Everything we had was good but only a few things really stood out for me; truffle pork and shrimp dumplings, Chinese donuts, and these absolutely amazing (both in flavor and color) bitter melon noodles.

We couldn't take Aaron to Vancouver without a stop at Granville Market, specifically Oyama meats for a delicious assortment of charcuterie (my favorites are the saucisson sec varieties). We also bought lovely tea from Granville Tea, and I got us a mixed box of macarons in flavors like champagne, tiger, and olive oil from Bon Macaron.

Martin from Juniper had told us about the Liberty Distillery at the market so we stopped in for a few tastes and an afternoon libation. Super nice folks and good gin and cocktails.

One last stop before leaving the area was made at Les Amis du Fromage for hard to get unpasteurized and raw milk imported cheese. Oh my, nothing is more delicious than tasting cheeses normally only found in Europe!

It was an absolutely gorgeous day so we took advantage of the sunshine and did a little drive and walking around Stanley Park. The views were picture perfect!

Aaron was really getting a grand tour and we were all a bit bushed so we headed back to our pad for a nap followed by aperos.

Dinner that night was at the Farmer's Apprentice. They have a 8-course meal for a bargain $55 that was absolutely fantastic! The space is a little drab but the service, vinyl records, and delicious food more than make up for that. We were all duly impressed with standouts for me being the salad (I know, right?), salmon, and the cheese course.  I'd highly recommend it!

Plus they serve little shards of cheese with the bill. Brilliant!

We retired home and made a better dent in our duty-free purchases.

Our breakfast the next morning was an ultimate smorgasbord; we had a boule of wheat bread from The Willows Inn which was still fresh and had incredible nutty flavor, along with this insane runny cheese, macarons from our shopping, and leftover loaded hash browns from our brunch in Bellingham. It was incredibly decadent!

Our big decision that day was if we were going to pack our ½ drunk bottles of duty-free booze home. We may or may not have also purchased some bottles of Havana Club 7 from the local liquor store. And we were going to be making a stop atduty-freee again on the way out. And each person is only allowed one liter. I voted to go for gold and we loaded it all in my trunk, half hidden by cheese and meat products. Sounds logical.

Our duty-free border stop resulted in some awesome Japanese whisky. We were fully over our limit by about six bottles. I pulled into a lane at the border and immediately regretted my choice as we saw pretty much every single car get their trunk checked and about 60% of those directed to the secondary screening area. Ugh. I was nervous, not about getting in trouble (I'm fairly good at talking my way out of situations) but of losing all our booze!

I pulled up to the border agent and one of his first questions was how we all knew each other. I immediately blushed and told him how we all met online on a foodie website years ago, and that I understood how absolutely geeky that was. My story, blushing, and nervous laughter caught him off guard and he laughed with us. He then asked which restaurants we all like on our visit to which we all started talking at once and gushing about dishes. He just laughed and waved us through. Booze safe and sound.

We stopped in the adorable towns of Bow and Edison on the way home. Had a homey lunch of grilled Beecher's Cheese sandwiches at Slough Food before buying baked goods next door at the Breadfarm. If you go, buy the seeded crackers. I think the seeds are actually crack.

And we all made it home safe and sound...

All Vancouver photos here.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Sleepover at The Willows Inn

When my friend Aaron said he was coming up from LA and wanted to eat at The Willows Inn on Lummi Island, I of course agreed to go. My first meal there had been back in 2011 and was lovely, my second meal in 2012 was a pretty spectacular chef event the restaurant was hosting, so I was looking forward to seeing how the restaurant has changed. I also was curious if the dishes had changed or if I would be getting a lot of repeats.

Lauren, Aaron and I made the easy 2 1/2 hour drive up on a Monday afternoon in May, arriving just after 4pm. The first thing I noticed was that the check in area is now downstairs in a dedicated room. They had out complimentary beverages and snacks set up here as well.
Lauren and I had rooms inside the main building at the top of the stairs. Her Sunrise Room was just on the other side of the staircase from my Sunset Room and there was a little seating area under the windows at the landing between them. It was great as we had the entire floor to ourselves, being that the entire floor consisted of just the two rooms!

As we were getting cleaned up for cocktail hour she spotted the chef's having their family meal outside by the smoker.
I headed downstairs to the "living room" and ordered a cocktail from the bar. Since my last visit the lodge has an actual bar that you can have drinks in, or you can choose to have your drink in front of the fireplace inside, or outside on the front porch. The cocktail menu has also evolved and each of our drinks over the course of our happy hour were very good.
When Aaron and Lauren came in we moved to a table on the front porch and took in the gorgeous views of Puget Sound while enjoying our cocktails. The chefs then started serving us a really lovely selection of pre-dinner snacks. This was a new part of the dinner to me and I loved it. I also loved that Chef Wetzel delivered a plate of crispy kale chips with black truffle to our table, a dish I had had before and remembered it being delicious. And it was again!
After complimentary glasses of cider and four different snack dishes they moved us inside for dinner. We decided not to do the wine pairings but instead to order a couple of nice bottles. We found a fantastic Gruner Veltliner and an outstanding Pinot Noir both from Willamette Valley on their menu, both were perfect with the meal.

Our 17-course meal (and that is after the four cocktail snacks!) was absolutely wonderful. Aaron doesn't eat pork or shellfish and some of his substituted dishes were even better than the regular ones! The only other repeat dish that I had was the smoked sockeye salmon, and that salmon is so good that I was very happy to see it return.

One of the standouts of the night for me was this "crispy mustard leaves with wild herbs and flowers". It was like the most high class version of a carnival funnel cake ever, only savory. And gorgeous!
Another eye opener was the bread which was served with pan drippings. We all thought this was genius, and incredibly delicious.

Near the end of our meal the kitchen invited us to come in for a tour. Chef Wetzel is so friendly and humble, he graciously answered questions and posed for photos. He seemed genuinely thankful when Lauren and I both said we'd been twice before, and when Aaron told him that his trip was built around the idea of dining at the inn.
We finished up our desserts and were presented with menus from the meal as well as a boule of wheat bread each. After dinner drinks in hand, we retired to the main room, in front of the fireplace. There may or may not have been some dancing as we had it all to ourselves.

The next morning we decided not to have breakfast at the inn as we were heading on to Vancouver. There was complimentary tea and coffee and some light snacks in the check out room which I thought was a nice touch.

It was such a great dinner and such a fun overnight with my friends. And even though it wasn't new to me, there were just enough changes to both the inn and the menu that it all continued to be interesting. And delicious.
All food porn here.