Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Gifts for the Traveler in Your Life

It's that time of year and if you find yourself pondering what to get the traveler in your life, here are some of my top picks.

1. The Vapur Collapsible Water Bottle. This collapsible plastic (BPA free) bottle rolls up in your suitcase, can be taken through airport security (empty of liquid) and refilled as you travel. Be green and well hydrated at the same time (and they come in cute colors with a spot to write in your name). They come with a carabiner, so you can clip to your bag (and in my case, I have another clip with a strap, so I can carry mine around on my shoulder too). This bottle is washable, foldable, freezable, attachable and wonderful!

2. A great piece of lightweight luggage: with more and more bag restrictions on airlines, lightweight is key (with the bonus of saving your back). There are many options out there, and different styles suit different travelers. A great backpack is perfect for the young traveler preparing to make his or her way across Europe or through the great outdoors. A carry on bag that is well designed for "maximum occupancy" is great for anyone. Check out Rick Steves' models. Also check out our Amazon link and do a search for lightweight luggage. Many travelers have shared their reviews, and there are great options.

A unique piece that I love is a larger backpack with a zip-off day pack attached. High Sierra and Eagle Creek both make such a bag (both have wheels and backpack straps for the larger bag). I recently purchased a Hedstrom bag, which forgoes the wheels in favor of being lighter overall. I can fit my small laptop and all the items I need to stay entertained on the road in the small day pack and then use the main compartment for a few changes of clothing, toiletries, etc.

3. Kindle or another e-reader. For the traveler who loves to read, this fits right in with the lightweight luggage. There is no other way to have hundreds of books at your fingertips for minimum space and weight. I have the model that requires wifi and it is quite sufficient since wifi is so widely available throughout the world. Amazon gift cards are a great option for the Kindle reader (and for just about anything else as well).

4. Great travel clothing or shoes. A great jacket is a perfect example of something that can be invaluable and last a long time. I suggest a waterproof, lined jacket that can be layered with warmer items underneath for cold days. I think the following features make a great jacket: a zip-off/snap-off hood, durable material, good pockets, and a versatile style (I prefer black or a neutral color that coordinates with the traveler's wardrobe, and a style that can adapt to "dress up" situations). I got a jacket like this over 11 years ago at Nordstrom and it is still in perfect condition and traveling with me to this day. Travelsmith has some great styles and there are a wide variety of men's and women's brands at Amazon. We recently discovered Stormtech while in Canada and they have great outdoor jackets and will satisfy the hiker, skier or general outdoor enthusiast.

For women, a Pashima or any nice scarf/wrap is a great addition to any trip. It can be used as a wrap, blanket, pillow or just a beautiful accessory to dress up an outfit.

Shoes are a bit more tricky and probably not something you can buy as a gift for someone, unless you shop together or provide a gift card to a good store such as Rockport or The Walking Company. This will be a true gift for the health and happiness of your traveler.

5. Travel guidebooks, magazine subscriptions or travel literature (traditional or ereader versions, or gift cards for either).

Happy shopping and traveling!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sightseeing in the Nation's Capitol

There is so much to see and do in Washington, D.C., you'd be pressured to do it all in a week. So what can you do on a one-day visit? Well, on a recent visit, we narrowed down our choices and didn't try to do it all. I'd suggest selecting spots that have special interest and allowing time to walk around and enjoy the city's architecture and history.

Of course, growing up nearby we have been to most of the sites at some point, so that also helped narrow things and we know we'll come back again soon. Rick Steves makes that point about visiting most any city when he says you should visit assuming you will be back again. I agree, because whether you really get back or not, it makes your visit more enjoyable and keeps the pressure down (and who wants travel to be pressure?).

Here's some highlights from our recent visit:
I would highly recommend a visit to this spot, all about news and journalism and its incredible impact. They have an amazing history of news, with archives of some of the first newspapers and early history of our country to big headlines you will remember from your own past. They have a great 9/11 exhibit and one regarding Hurricane Katrina, and both truly illustrate the evolution of journalism and how our crises are documented. It seems like a well-balanced museum, covering big events like the above as well as the fall of the Berlin Wall, history, current freedom of press around the world, the internet's effects and citizens as journalists in that world...plus interactive exhibits and a 4D movie for fun. It is a visually stunning museum as well, and has a great layout (though perhaps we should have watched the orientation movie so we would have better understood that from the start).

This isn't one of the many freebies in D.C., but they do offer student, senior and AAA discounts and are currently doing an early bird special on weekend days. We're pretty speedy museum-goers (I don't need to stare at things long) and we spent a good 2 1/2 hours here and would have spent longer.
The Smithsonian offers such an array of options and best of all, they are free. We had both been to the American History Museum but it had been quite a while. I think the most popular school trip when I was growing up was Natural History, so I didn't recall as much from this one. I loved the First Lady's inauguration gown exhibit and was excited to see Julia Child's kitchen, but would probably have to choose the transportation exhibit and the Star Spangled Banner as my favorites. The pop culture exhibit was somewhat disappointing, though I don't know what I was expecting from the Fonz's jacket. There was a lot more to see here than I recalled, so don't underestimate the time needed--you will likely be surprised by enjoying exhibits you might think to skip at first.

I had been there a while back, but somehow Bryan never had. It is a must-see at least one time and another free treasure and unique display of history. It is special to be able to view the major documents of our nation's history. You can also do research at the archives and I am fascinated by the process of archiving and restoring documents and the job of managing all of that information (only made more difficult in today's information age), but make sure to make the stop through the visitor area to view the documents on display while in D.C. if you haven't seen them.

One last plug for a new discovery for us on this trip. We took the Megabus for the first time and it's a great transportation option. I have used the Metro many times, and it is a wonderful system. Driving and parking in D.C. is the worst option. However, this time we were further north and would have had to drive in to get to a Metro stop, so when we discovered the Megabus leaves from the Park and Ride right down the street, it was a no-brainer. For less than $30 (and often much less if you book in advance) we had almost door-to-door service (the drop off point in D.C. is perfectly situated by the sights). The Megabus offers great deals for traveling between many major spots in the NE. It's bus travel so nothing glamorous but you can relax (not stressed out fighting through the inevitable traffic), get some work done, or catch up on your podcasts or audiobooks (my choice)--they even have plugs right by the seats to charge up all those electronics.

Next trip to D.C., I plan to make a second visit to the Holocaust Museum and try to get in a few more of the Smithsonian's great spots. I'm also intrigued by the spy museum, but may save that for when my nieces get a bit older since it seems like something kids would really enjoy. If you have any suggestions, let me know!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Wine Islands

It seems like almost anywhere you go nowadays has a wine region. Some are better than others, but I've been pleasantly surprised by the quality of wines being produced many places.

On Vancouver Island, the "warm land" of the Cowichan Valley provides a great climate for growing grapes and the small estate vineyards are producing several interesting wines. It's also an area renowned for all types of farming, so there are wonderful local treats at the farmer's markets--ciders, berries, vegetables, herbs, dairy products, meats, wild mushrooms, jams and more.

Some of the primary grapes that flourish in this region are Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Ortega. A number of producers also make a blackberry dessert wine from the abundance of local blackberries.

Visiting estate wineries, especially in more remotes areas, is worlds apart from the likes of a Napa Valley wine tour. The wineries are often situated within a family's private home and most often the owner will be pouring the wine. It may not be as fancy as some larger tasting rooms and tours, but it has a charm and fun all its own. The owners exude passion for their work and often provide a great education.

For this trip, we took a van tour from Parksville to the Cowichan Valley, with Pacific Rainforest Adventure Tours, Inc.. Our guide, Gary, does a number of nature hikes and tours and pointed out different sites and facts along the way. The biggest negative was that, being the off season, several wineries were not open. Unfortunately, our guide didn't check ahead, so our first two potential stops were closed. It didn't end up being a problem because we had plenty of places to visit that were open, but it was not an auspicious start. Taking a tour has some advantages, including not worrying about driving if you have a few too many tastes, but also not having to worry about where you are going. Although the wine trail is well marked on Vancouver Island, many of the wineries are fairly removed and down long windy driveways--having someone who has been there before and can navigate those spots is handy, and allows you to enjoy the scenery.

Here were a few spots I would recommend and some notes on the wines:

1. Blue Grouse Estate Winery had a nice tasting room and enthusiastic wine steward (not the owner, but she was very passionate). The Ortega was tasty, but the Pinot Gris really stood out among the whites. It was more creamy and full bodied than a lot of Pinot Gris--very smooth with a lingering finish. A pleasant surprise! The other wine that was new to us was the Dunkelfelder, a red made from a rare grape. Dry and unique, it would stand up well with red meat and heavy foods--well worth tasting (and buying).

2. Rocky Creek Winery exemplifies the small, family run estate winery. The owner provided our tasting. He started running his winery out of his basement before he was able to move to the current property. A man who loved making wine, and found a way to transition from hobby to business--he makes you want to cheer for him. He gave some history of the wines, the seasons and how they came to make some unique wines during one particularly tough season. He has received accolades from his early days of winemaking and obviously takes great pride in his passion. His is a family business and two of the wines are named for his daughters, who have apparently put in a lot of work in the business. The blackberry dessert wine was quite tasty, and he pairs it with a salt and pepper chocolate that they make. They also make a sparkling wine, which was not quite out when we visited--another result of that one bad season that forced innovation.

3. Cherry Point Vineyards was a bit larger and had a nice tasting room, as well as a bistro (not open when we visited). The winery has apparently changed ownership a few times, and the current owners have that passion and knowledge that makes the visit an educational experience. They also make a delicious blackberry dessert wine (named after the area, probably one of the most signature of the area) as well as an aged version with more depth called Solera, after the style of processing. Their Rose won me over to Roses--made from Pinot Noir, in the "proper style" as we were informed. It was dry and smooth, none of the cloying sweetness or bite that some Roses have. Their red Pinot Noir was very distinctive, with a strong peppery flavor. Apparently, the vineyard's soil brings out that flavor in the reds and it made for a very interesting and bold Pinot Noir.

Most of the vineyards and farms in the area follow organic practices. Doing so is labor intensive and even with helpers (most farms and vineyards get young people who work in exchange for room, board and experience) you have to be passionate to be doing this.

Beyond the wineries, there is much to see and do in the Cowichan Valley. Visit Cowichan Bay, a quaint fishing village with unbelievable views, cute shops, and plenty of good eats. Don't miss the cheese shop and the bakery. The town of Chemainus offers a nice downtown, with its famous murals depicting the history of the area and its peoples. You have to appreciate a town's ingenuity in creating a tourism draw after their mill closed down and the economy suffered. They also have a great live theatre. Take a stroll through nearby Duncan to check out the numerous totems. There are many artisans in the area to check out as well, and of course the farmer's markets and restaurants to enjoy all the bounties of the farms and sea.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Away from it all on Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island may be a little out of the way, but it's well worth the trip. There is something about islands that makes them special...that slight inaccessibility lending something that is hard to find in a world where things are mostly convenient and homogeneous. The ferry ride over from Vancouver was a great part of the trip in itself. We took the car ferry--a modern, well equipped, "mini cruise" with plenty of comforts, though the views are the best amenity.

British Columbia is perhaps the most diverse Canadian Province in terms of ecosystems. BC has desert areas, mountains, old growth forests, calm beaches and rain forests and more. Apparently, BC has the world's strongest ocean currents, yet in the Parksville and Nanoose Bay area they have some of the mildest, along with mild ocean temperatures (I would never have guessed the water could get up to 80 degrees Fahrenheit here!).

Some other interesting facts I learned:

The west coast of Vancouver Island contains the rain forest area and very wet weather--almost 100 times that of the east coast, which actually sees mild rainfall (20-30 inches/year).

The west coast is prone to Tsunamis, though they have been mild and the country has an extensive warning system that works very well.

The world's greatest population of cougars lives on Vancouver Island.

There are many things to do to enjoy the natural beauty of the island:

  • Watch bears chasing the running salmon.

  • Visit old growth forests and walk amongst the 800 year old trees.

  • Hike the rainforest.

  • Tour the caves.

  • Visit fish hatcheries.

  • Go skiing.

  • Walk some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

  • Take in the views from the many golf courses.

  • Go whale watching, bird watching, or shell collecting.

  • Visit the waterfalls or take in the wide variety of beautiful scenery in the many parks.

In addition to the great outdoors, there are interesting shops, museums, places to explore the history of the island's native people, crafts and artisans, tours of the wineries, meaderies, and farmer's markets, and several quaint towns to enjoy. Then, there's the capital city of Victoria...but more on that later...

For more photos of Vancouver Island click here and for more detailed information on visiting, stop by the Vancouver Island website.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

City Trips: Vancouver, BC

To me, the key for a great city trip is a convenient hotel/place to stay. Of course, most cities enjoy great public transportation, which opens up location options and enables you to avail yourself of a variety of neighborhoods.

Vancouver is no exception, with a wonderful train system and electric buses running throughout the city. It is also very walkable, even in cold weather (milder than many other northern cities and there are coffee shops on every corner to take off the chill). Bike lanes are taking priority as the city redesigns the roads. Vancouver's unique seawall path runs around the waterside of most of the city and is the perfect spot to take in the scenery and get some exercise.

As on my visits to most large cities, one of the best parts of the visit is walking around exploring the city's neighborhoods, people watching, window shopping and enjoying the convenience of "city living". Vancouver has many fun and diverse neighborhoods, from Yaletown to Granville Island to Chinatown (the 2nd largest in North America). Yaletown was our home base and had a number of shops, restaurants and bars and was central to many areas. Granville Street runs nearby and is home to a lot of the chain shops, cheap eats and the nightclub scene. Gastown, several blocks away, is an old area with new life. Check out Chill Winston for great food and creative cocktails, or head below to Guilt & Co. for a good beer selection in a cellar atmosphere. There are a number of restaurants and pubs to check out in the area, and most have great settings in the old buildings. I'd recommend Six Acres for the shoestring fries and a Belgian beer.

Granville Island has a wonderful array of shops and markets. The public market has every type of take away food you could want, plus all of the food groups and more in the food stalls. In the damp weather, the homemade hot chocolate hit the spot--I chose the Mayan with a bit of chili spice and vanilla-yum!

Another must-visit is Stanley Park. Like most great urban areas, the green spaces are vital to the city. Stanley Park is unique in all there is to do there and the views of the water, Vancouver Island/mountains. Visit the aquarium to take in the whale show and many native species. Check out the great restaurants, especially The Tea House for a traditional tea service or classic meal. Stop by the Totem pole area and native peoples center/gift shop to learn more about the first inhabitants of this area. And, of course, enjoy the nature of the park and all of the different beaches and garden areas.

There is plenty to see and do in Vancouver, without even venturing in to the rest of British Columbia, which has much more to offer. On my next visit, I hope to check out the Museum of Anthropology at UBC and explore more of the neighborhoods, as well as venture out to the Capilano Suspension bridge and Grouse Mountain.

View more photos here.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

My Picks: Top 5 Beer Bars

I love seeing the proliferation of beer bars and interest in the many different styles of beer made throughout the world. There's a cool dichotomy right now...with many people appreciating locally grown and seasonal foods, while at the same time our world becomes more global and we get exposed to food and drink from all parts of the globe.

You can more easily find great places to sample different beers in many communities and the elevated pub food can be a pleasant surprise too. Here are my picks for some favorite "beer bars" around the world. Check them out on your travels. If you don't think you like beer, you may find beer can be as diverse as food and wine...there's bound to be something you'll enjoy!

1. Cafe Gollem-Amsterdam, NL: I was lucky to find this place while doing research for my honeymoon years ago, at a time when there wasn't the information overload that is the Internet today. I recently searched it out again on the web to make sure it still exists and was pleased to find it does, but it has been quite a few years since my last visit so I hope it is still the same charming hole in the wall it once was. At the time, this place was on a side street (i.e. alley) that the cab driver even had a hard time locating. You'll see it was the first cafe in Amsterdam specializing in Belgian and other import beers and today there are 3 locations--I'd venture to say thanks to the deliciousness (and popularity) of Belgian beers. Great place to talk to experienced beer lovers and discover some Belgian beers you won't get in the U.S. We met a couple from Boston there who took regular pilgrimages there--smart couple!

2. Biermarkt Esplanade-Toronto, CA: Another great purveyor of Belgian beers, plus delicious food and a great atmosphere. This place represents Belgium well with its many styles of mussels and frites, with plenty of beers to match. They have a big lineup on tap, but ask the knowledgeable bartenders to recommend a bottle and expose you to something new. They love to talk beer and really know their stuff (of course, we've had the same bartender each visit, so we may just have been lucky). This is a big place with a bustling crowd and great outdoor seating if you happen to visit in summer. Almost the opposite environment from #1, proving good beer can be enjoyed in many ways.

3. The Flying Saucer-Nashville, TN and various locations: The website is beerknurd, and the focus here is obvious, though on a recent visit I had to admit feeling things were a bit diluted by the addition of liquor. However, this place will certainly expose patrons to a wide variety of beers, with one of the largest tap selections you will find anywhere. The atmosphere is fun, there's often live music, the Nashville location is in an old train station with great appeal. With a number of locations, atmosphere and experience vary but I've visited one or two others and heard positive feedback on other locations. You can sample beers from many countries, and in a grand tradition that seems to be catching on everywhere, you can "join the club" by working your way through 200 beers (again and again if you'd like) and being immortalized on the wall in all your beer induced glory. Food isn't the focus here, though they have decent bar food, but it's all about the beer and the fun.

4. The World of Beer-Tampa, FL (and rapidly expanding locations): A classic beer focused spot...the original doesn't even bother with selling food, rather leaving that up to the neighboring restaurants and allowing people to bring in whatever they would like. It's all about the beer! We'll see how this place does now that it is branching out to multiple locations--the new locations serve food and hopefully that will only add to the enjoyment. There are new corporate partners, franchising and new locations popping up like mad...I just hope the focus on great beer remains. The Westchase location is cozy, with nice outdoor space and always has a lively atmosphere. The bartenders are pretty knowledgeable, with the occasional beer snobbery (but, when you come to a place with hundreds of beers and continue to ask for Bud Light maybe you deserve a sarcastic response).

5. Belgo Restaurants-London/multiple locations: Mor restaurant than "beer bar", but another nod to the greatness of Belgian beer, and the wonderful food that compliments it so well. I had the best crab dish here years ago, and had a hard time making a choice on their extensive menu. I love this quote from their website: "There are over 800 kinds of beer made in Belgium and the average Belgian consumes 150 litres of beer per person per year. Just to prove that Belgium does beer better than anybody else, the world's first beer academy opened in Herk-de-Stad, in the Belgian province of Limburg, in 1999". Just read the menu online and you'll know you have to make a stop there on the next trip to London.

These places collectively offer such great beer selections, I can't even begin to give recommendations on specific beers. There are other wonderful breweries and almost unlimited places focused on great beer and food, but these represent a great sampling of must visit places. They offer a "beer connoisseur" the chance to find something new and a "beer novice" the opportunity to discover the diversity of beer. They all have knowledgeable staff who can guide you to good choices when you visit.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Clearwater Jazz Holiday

It seems now most communities have wonderful local events and festivals--from craft fairs and art shows to outdoor concerts and movies in the park. We chose our hometown because we found ourselves there so often for these type of events, in addition to the walkability, proximity to the beach and a great little downtown. It's nice to see many towns valuing these features and working to improve quality of life.

One of the great events in the Tampa Bay area--with a long tradition--is Clearwater Jazz Holiday. Now, I haven't been around from the inception so I can't recall all the iterations, but having been involved as a volunteer for several years, I hear a lot of opinions about the festival and the changes that have occurred. Last year, on the 20th anniversary, the St. Pete Times did a retrospective and I was fascinated to learn more about the history and evolution of this "little" jazz festival, which is not so little and not so local anymore. Some people talk wistfully of the "old days" when they picnicked with their families and brought their own food and wine for a candlelit evening at the park, but change is inevitable. And, you have to appreciate what a gem this festival is, changes or not.

My family goes to several jazz festivals throughout the country and we attended a lot of music events in Nashville when we lived there. There aren't many live music events of this quality for free available...though Nashville was an exception to that with some real quality outdoor concerts every year. Somehow people forget the free aspect when they speak negatively. And, the things you purchase at the festival (beer, wine, food, souvenirs), which help to support the event, are a better value than at almost any other event (try getting a beer for these prices at a football game).

But, on to what this festival is all about and what you can expect if you come to it. First, it's worth a trip to Clearwater and in recent years, has become more of a regional and national event. This is a great time of year to visit Clearwater (it's held in mid October every year)--less crowds, beautiful weather. The setting is amazing--Coachman Park sits on the water and every night there's a gorgeous sunset view. It can be warm during the day, but by evening there's usually a cool breeze off the water and it's a good idea to bring a sweatshirt (something area residents look forward to fondly after suffering "summer" since March).

Second, the park is lively and the people watching is great. Even if you aren't that in to the music, this is a fun place to spend some time. The natural setting is great, but as a volunteer in the wine/beer area, my most fond memories are the people I have met. This event is volunteer run and there's nothing better than the sense of community it takes to bring together that many willing volunteers. Getting to know the volunteers in my area is one of the delights every year. We all have a great time together and everyone is enthusiastic. You'll receive some of the best "customer service" from the volunteers working this festival that you'd experience anywhere. Most of the attendees are equally enthusiastic and happy to be there, so the mood is festive and friendly. The occasional person will always spoil that, but sometimes that makes for an interesting story too. If you attend, don't forget this festival is volunteer run and think about the long hours people have dedicated to making this happen--for free.

Last but not least, the music is of course the reason for Clearwater Jazz Holiday. The festival has brought in some amazing acts over the years (for free, I say again:-). Now, I'm no music critic, so I'll leave that to the experts. I know some criticize the lineups, especially when less traditional acts play, but every year we enjoy some pretty great music. Perhaps if you're an ardent jazz enthusiast seeking specific music, you won't find what you want, but I can't imagine you wouldn't have a great time, and perhaps discover something new. I enjoy that there have been some diverse choices, which have appealed to a varied crowd. And, every year local talent gets great exposure--and we have some impressive local talent.

From the perspective of a traveler and general cultural enthusiast, I believe Clearwater Jazz Holiday ranks up there with festivals worth a trip, and definitely worth visiting as a local. I have to admit that I didn't know much about it before getting asked to volunteer, and it reminds me to check out different music events and festivals. You don't necessarily have to be an ardent fan to enjoy what these events have to offer. Festivals and concerts are a great way to see a place, expand your horizons and interact with great people.

For more information on Clearwater Jazz Holiday, click here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Beach Memories

Do you have a vacation spot that bring you back to childhood? We spent most of my formative years going to the Jersey Shore during summers. This was not the Jersey Shore of MTV. The town we visited, Stone Harbor, had at most two bars and the teen dance at the community center was the closest thing to a dance club. It was an ideal place for a family vacation—we rented the same cottage for years and it was a three block walk to the beach and two blocks to downtown (i.e. the candy store, ice cream parlor and later, the hang out spot for pre-teen meet ups). Most times, we visited with our grandparents and often our good family friends rented the house next door. I vividly remember the smells, tastes and sights of those summer vacations, as I think most of us do when we think back. It’s funny now to think how much I looked forward to those vacations and hated leaving—I guess wanderlust starts young, even before the responsibilities of jobs and adulthood. There was just something special about the beach.

Our beach going changed somewhat when our family discovered the Outer Banks, thanks to our aunt and uncle who had been visiting for years. The Nags Head area was not only enjoyable, but more within the financial reach of a typical family (i.e. not reality TV stars). Our dream of owning our own vacation home soon followed, though we often continued our visits to Stone Harbor and affectionately named our new home after the town.

The Outer Banks was changing from a sleepy little fishing area (or what’s that saying: “a drinking village with a fishing problem”?) to a more favored tourist destination (and gaining year round residents) as we started vacationing there. Much of the area is protected national seashore and the natural beauty still remains today, but it is definitely more built up and crowded. But, at the same time there is more to do—plenty of good restaurants, bars, and shopping (unfortunately along with Walmart, Home Depot, etc.). Summer can be overrun with visitors, but the place has plenty of pockets of local character and natural beauty. The best time to visit is fall, when the crowds lessen and the weather cools a bit. We often visited during winter holidays and other times of year, when you had to check which restaurants were open and might spend hours just relaxing looking out over the water. Sometimes when I was younger, this bored me. Now I realize it gave us more time as a family uninterrupted by the rush of life at home.

Coming from a background that’s a bit of an ethnic hodgepodge, we didn’t have a lot of traditions in our family stemming from cultural or religious rites. My Mom sometime tried to adopt traditions from different cultures, feeling we needed more “family traditions”. The truth is we had plenty—they were just of our own making. I think of the beach vacations and all of the little rituals and memories of them as part of that. If traditions are about memories and a “shared culture”, our family is wealthy in those. Being back in the beach home brings all of those back to me. There’s still something special about the beach.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Asheville Reflections

When you hear a lot of great things about a place, you sometimes wonder if it will live up to expectations. Some people feel Asheville, NC has lost some of its charm since it’s been “discovered”, but for a first time visitor, it still holds a lot of charm. Asheville is diverse enough to satisfy the outdoors type, the shopper, the artist, the foodie, the party goer, the reader or the tourist.

There is a definite food culture here and the area is on the forefront of local, sustainable dining. Once again, there’s food for everyone too—Japanese, classic southern, vegan, steak…upscale or inexpensive. All the meals I had (other than the hotel continental breakfast) were memorable. A few favorites:

L.A.B. (Lexington Avenue Brewery)-serving their own beer and a diverse menu of upscale brewpub food—and obviously a popular spot. I had the arugula salad (with crunchy apples, sweet/spicy nuts, brie and champagne vinaigrette), but would have loved to try the soft shell crab banh mi if I were a little hungrier.

Laughing Seed-all vegetarian menu, with a lot of vegan options. I had a delicious cremini mushroom omelet with goat cheese, peppers and onions.

Table-local ingredients with a different menu each night. Loved the corn chowder with blue crab—probably the best soup I’ve ever tasted. Their homemade ice cream and French press coffee were the perfect finish.

Truffles from Chocolate Fetish-don’t be afraid to try something different-the pistachio basil truffle was my favorite.

There are some great shops throughout downtown and on Saturdays, local artists and craftspeople sell items in the park and streets. The Woolworths has an old fashioned soda fountain but the rest of the space is now filled with local artists’ wares. Downtown Asheville also has plenty of nightlife, with bars of all kinds, live music venues and plenty of locally brewed beer, in addition to the nice restaurants with plenty of outdoor seating for people watching. We enjoyed the views and weather from two rooftop bars as well. I’d recommend the Rankin Vault Cocktail lounge—great prices with the option of hiding in the dark cocktail lounge or enjoying the weather at sidewalk tables. The Frog Bar offers a number of infused liquors made in-house and makes some unique cocktails with them. I found my nirvana at the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar. The way to my heart: a huge selection of used and rare books surrounding you as you enjoy a great glass of wine (and perhaps some great local cheese). The books and wine are all for sale as well. I’d be a regular here if this were home.

There’s often a lot going on in the area and the weekend we visited was no exception. Activities included a beer festival (with blues music), an arts festival in nearby Weaverville, a symphony performance, and the Roller Derby. You have to love a place that has the symphony and roller derby in the same arena on the same night—definitely a diverse town! There is a large drum circle in the park every weekend and no shortage of local farmers markets. Asheville offers all of this, plus the local attractions (The Biltmore, Thomas Wolfe memorial, the art museum...) and the entire surrounding area with plenty of outdoor activities. It would be hard to imagine anyone not finding something to like here.

The Biltmore

Some attractions are not bargain friendly--Disney and the Biltmore Estate have this in common. However, the Biltmore, like Disney, offers different combo tickets as well as yearly passes. For summer (and I believe year round at some hotels) the Biltmore offers what is essentially two days for the price of one. There is enough to see there to make it worth spreading out over 2 days if you can. Crowds can be pretty bad, so it's nice to have the option to break up your activities.

Many people choose the audio tour for the home, but I enjoyed just reading the information along the way. It's amazing to think of this being a home--obviously a home built for entertainment and housing guests. I most enjoyed seeing the "inner workings" such as the kitchens, pantries, and servants quarters. On the tour, you only see a small portion of this grand estate, but it awes nonetheless, with the large indoor pool, bowling alley, massive library and enough entertaining space for endless friends.

The gardens and grounds are beautiful and I came back to walk those on the second day. The mountain weather is just cool enough to enjoy a long stroll--or you can rent a bike, bring your own bike for the miles of trails, or do a segway tour (not cheap either--$75 additional). Horseback riding is another popular activity and you see a number of people riding the trails.

In addition to the home and grounds, you can stay at the Inn or visit for a meal. They have also added a village area that has a few stores and more casual places to eat, as well as the winery tour/tasting. We took the winery tour--I guess it was worth the price (free), but the tasting at the end was quite generous. You could try about 20 different wines from their list, or buy a glass or premium tasting if you want to taste the sparkling wines. They had several good wines there--they work with vineyards all over, so these aren't just NC grapes. The Chenin Blanc and several of the whites were pretty good. There is also a farm, which offers carriage rides and a # of family friendly activities.

Just outside the Biltmore grounds you'll find Biltmore Village. It didn't look like much to us, but there were actually quite a few nice shops and restaurants. The Corner House Restaurant looks like a great place for Sunday brunch--quite the crowd was gathered. Plenty of upscale clothing stores, children's shops, housewares and gift items to be found--and more money to be spent...

The Biltmore is definitely worth a visit, especially if you can spend some time enjoying the outdoors and all the activities there in addition to the home tour.
Photos of the Biltmore grounds

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Chihuly at Cheekwood

After recently seeing the new permanent Dale Chihuly collection in St. Pete, it was a great follow up to see the collection currently installed (until 10/31/10) at Cheekwood in Nashville. Seeing the glass installations in this gorgeous outdoor setting definitely outshone the permanent collection in St. Pete.

Cheekwood is a great place to visit anytime--an estate and grounds dedicated to providing the public enjoyment of the arts and gardens, thanks to the generosity of the Cheek family and their Maxwell House Coffee fortune. Set on 55 acres, Cheekwood offers a beautiful home filled with art (including a great collection of Faberge), a sculpture trail, botanical gardens and educational facilities.

The best way to view the Chihuly exhibit is during "Chihuly Nights"--every Wed., Thur. and Fri. from 4:30-10. We arrived at dusk and began the trail, which starts with a magnificent neon tower (Saffron Tower) and cattails throughout the surrounding area. The bamboo garden would have been amazing in itself, but with the red silvered reeds interspersed, it was a true reflection of Chihuly's work integrating with nature. As dark fell, the works truly shone. The boat in a small pond contained vibrant glassworks of all shapes and sizes. We had seen a similar installation in St. Pete, placed on a black lacquered floor to appear like water, but in the real water with the ripples reflecting the glass, it was at its finest.

As you wound toward the art museum, a giant "sun" was installed on the front lawn, juxtaposing the modern with the old architecture of the home. We didn't realize there was art throughout the museum as well, and it was a pleasant surprise. Chihuly's chandeliers were particularly impressive, especially the large one in ivory and gold tones above the twisting stairs. Two more stunning installations sat at the side of the museum, one striking shades of blue mixed in with nature and the other like tall green and purple reeds in the side pond.

There were photos of Chihuly's works throughout the world and a video to watch in the learning center as well. Overall, the amount of art on display was impressive and well worth the price of admission. Chihuly's works really are best displayed on grounds like these and interacting with the environment in such unique ways. It overshadowed the permanent installation--I'm certainly glad I saw that one first, or it would have been a bit disappointing, especially for the same admission price.

Check out Chihuly at Cheekwood if you can make it before it leaves. I would definitely go at night, and perhaps even bring a picnic along. The weather was perfect when we visited and there is plenty to enjoy for a few hours. Cheekwood has great picnic spots, as well as a restaurant (plus refreshments & drinks in the evening) on site. There is a corresponding exhibit at the Frist Center and they offer a combination ticket for both (the Frist exhibit has timed tickets, so check in advance).

For more photos of the exhibit click here.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Georgia Wineries: A Real Surprise

Our friends shared a pleasant treat with us on our visit to Atlanta. There are some surprisingly good wines being produced in “Georgia Wine Country”—in an area north of Atlanta, around Dahlonega, GA. The area is beautiful, so the trip is worth it for the scenery alone. We traveled on a shining, sunny day and with the mountain breeze, it was about the most perfect day. The trip is a bit of a hike—up GA 400 and then through some extensive (and windy, hilly) back roads. But, not a bad jaunt for a Sunday afternoon and you’ll be rewarded once you arrive. We had originally planned to have brunch at Wolf Mountain Vineyard but decided to visit later in the day. The dining room there has spectacular views and apparently the brunch is great, so it’s probably worth visiting for brunch and making a day of it.

We started at Frogtown Cellars, which has a beautiful facility for tastings and events. They offer a 9 wine tasting for $15—whites or reds. I tried the whites and overall, had pretty positive impressions. My friend tried the reds, so we both got to taste a bit of both. My favorite white was probably the 2006 Frogtown Inclination, a blend of Chardonnay, Viognier and Vidal fermented in French oak barrels. It was easy drinking but with a nice flavor—not too sweet, but with a bit of toasty caramel on the end. Other favorites included: 2008 Viognier, 2008 Vineaux Blanc and the MRV (Rhone style blend of Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier. They also had a nice Vidal dessert wine called Cachet—not too sweet for a dessert wine, especially after recently traveling to Niagara and tasting true ice wines and very sweet Vidals and late harvest Rieslings. Frogtown also offers a “panini bar” if you need a hearty snack along your way, and my friends really enjoyed the Italian sandwich, made with Prosciutto.

We went on to Wolf Mountain, which has stunning views and a great facility. You go through the dining room down to the tasting room and can enjoy your wine on the terrace as well. They offer a standard tasting and an estate tasting, which includes their sparkling wines. This vineyard introduced champagne style sparkling wines to the region, and seems to be doing a pretty good job with what they are producing. I’m not a big rose fan, but they had a nice, relatively dry rose which I enjoyed. It was worth the visit for the views alone and the wine went nicely with the setting.

There are a few more vineyards to check out in the area. Blackstock is the largest and was the first in the area—apparently; they provide grapes for a number of the smaller wineries. We left in the afternoon, and everything pretty much closed by 5 on Sunday so we didn’t have a lot of time to explore the area, but Dahlonega is a cute little town and there’s plenty to check out in the area for a nice day trip.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Excerpts from Atlanta

Going back to visit an old hometown usually means visiting with family and friends, and perhaps revisiting a list of favorite spots or must have meals. We spent most of our time on a recent visit to Atlanta catching up with old friends, making for a great trip. We did have to get a couple of those meals in too...a Vortex cheeseburger (or in my case sweet potato tater tots), a cheesy Mexican meal at El Azteca and breakfast food at The Flying Biscuit (best grits!).

But one of my favorite spots is always downtown Decatur. Reminds me a bit of home-Dunedin, FL. Cute downtown, fun festivals, diverse people--hometown feel but never boring. We had a great dinner at The Corner Pub and strolled around the square, where you can get everything from sushi to BBQ to locally brewed beer.

Even though we didn't do much "sightseeing" we found a surprising gem right near my friend's house in Sandy Springs. In a little strip mall above the visitors center, the city hosts "Anne Frank in the World", an exhibit of photos and information about Anne Frank, her life and persecution under the Nazis. It is a small exhibit but worth seeing. It is open every day but Monday, but hours are limited so check before you go. They have little slips of paper with diary quotes as remembrance of your visit. Mine reads: "Mother Nature makes me humble and prepared to face every blow courageously.". Anne had tremendous wisdom for her age, gained from enduring challenges that no child (or anyone) should.

All together a great visit, thanks especially to the hospitality of good friends.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Perfect Road Trip

"A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it." -- John Steinbeck

The biggest tip for the "perfect" road trip is to take the unexpected in stride--not to expect perfection. Enjoy the journey for what it is. This can be easy driving through gorgeous countryside or over a beautiful bridge, but not so when stuck in traffic or spending hours staring at nothingness. To enjoy a road trip, you have to enjoy the solitude (or togetherness with a travel companion) as well as the sites. It is rare to get that time to talk, or listen to music, play road games and have simple companionship or peace.

Did you take road trips as a child? Most of us remember them with a mixture of fondness and humor over the escapades. If you have a sibling (or two, three...), you probably remember fights over every little thing, including breathing on one another. My brother and I ended up with separate minivan rows, and still managed to tug on one another's seat belt or otherwise irritate each other from afar. At the same time, I recall many pleasant drives watching the road and landmarks roll by, listening to music and occasionally dozing. As a car sick prone child, I learned to sleep in the car to avoid nausea. I've had to fight that tendency somewhat in adulthood to be a decent travel companion (though college friends can recall trips where they got a kick out of my wide open mouth as I nodded off on excursions). We played everything from 20 questions, to the UHaul game (was this unique to us?), and my parents' favorite, "the silent game"--a very short lived game in our family.

A road trip with a spouse or friend(s) can be a great chance to reconnect. Obviously, there is a lot of time to talk and catch up, but even spending companionable time in silence or listening to music is something we rarely do. Audio books are a favorite of mine for travel as well and with satellite radio and podcasts, there's an unlimited world of entertainment. I get nostalgic for a moment over turning the radio dial and finding only one scratchy station, but that doesn't last long when I'm enjoying the Harry Potter audio books or a "This American Life" podcast on "Road Trips".

What are your favorite road trip memories? Your funniest mishap or misadventure on the road?

What are your must haves for the road? What games do you play, or entertainment do you prefer, if any?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A List of Some Old Favorites

Some of our favorites from our honeymoon trip--over 11 years ago, so I'd love to hear from anyone who has been to these spots more recently or knows if they still exist, your suggestions and thoughts...


  • Belgo restaurant (great Belgian food and extensive beer list)
  • "Double decker" hop on, hop off buses (of course these still exist, and while they might be cheesy, we've done some form of "hop on, hop off" in many cities around the world for orientation and transportation between major spots)
  • The Beatles "Magical Mystery Tour"--if you're a Beatles fan-great walking tour
  • Sofra-Turkish restaurant
  • London theatre-there's so much to choose from, and both of my trips to London have included one or more shows
  • High tea-I'm sure there are better (and cheaper) places to go than Harrod's, but I felt like I got the London experience


  • Walking the streets, checking out the pubs, coffee shops and the red light district
  • Canal tours (once again...the hop on, hop off choice)
  • Anne Frank house (a really moving experience for someone who read her diary over and over again as a young girl)-the lines get really long so there can be a huge wait
  • Joordan neighborhood (the area around Anne Frank's house)
  • Indonesian food-I didn't write down the name of the place we tried, but it was our first time having Indonesian, which is quite popular in Amsterdam. Watch out for the spiciness!
  • Gommel-a tiny, hole in the wall beer bar (I found on the Internet before the trip) with a huge selection of beer, especially from Belgium

(in between--taking the overnight train w/private accommodations--great way to maximize your time, comfortable and efficient)


  • The town of Kusfstein-absolutely picturesque and with the great train system, easy access to towns throughout Austria and Germany. We were lucky to have a travel agent who had lived in the area, and made this great suggestion for visiting Oktoberfest without staying in the crowds of Munich.
  • Taking the train to Innsbruck-beautiful countryside and a great town to visit
  • Apple Strudel, crepes or any other pastry, plus Espresso!
  • Hotel Alpenrose in Kufstein-the best innkeeper-he managed to be everywhere and help with translating the menu, giving advice, and making you comfortable all at once. Don't miss the gourmet restaurant in the hotel. Our room looked out on the mountains and the view of grazing livestock from the coziest bed ever.

I can't give too many recommendations in Munich, because we really only spent a little time there, mainly at Oktoberfest. I would recommend you consider going to Oktoberfest with a group and reserving a table inside. We had bad weather most of the time, and learned that the tables are generally reserved so it's hard to get a spot inside. We were lucky to get a couple seats at a large table one evening and found it easy to get past the language barrier when it came to raising a mug. We were really lucky that my husband works for an international company, who happened to have a table for the Munich office and we found them one night. They were so hospitable and we had great fun spending time together, passing around the giant pretzels, sharing chicken and of course toasting with our giant mugs of beer. A great company outing!

Reminiscing Over Travel Journals

I recently found a travel journal I kept on our honeymoon trip (to London, Amsterdam, Austria and Germany) over 11 years ago. I've had fun reading through it and enjoying the memories it brings back. I'm determined to start keeping notes on all of our trips again.

It's great to look back on the places we visited, my descriptions and observations and remember all that we did on the trip. It was like a mini excursion reading through it. A bit of a history lesson at times, too, especially when you realize how technology and globalization has changed things, for good and bad.

Here's a line that really made me laugh, from one evening out at the local bar in Kufstein, Austria:

"One guy was drinking this mix of vodka and Red Bull (some type of soda(?) they have-they called it an energy drink). They called it fire water and he drank quite a bit of it through a tubing system they had set up." Yes, this was prior to the Red Bull invasion of America and its hard to imagine now that I didn't know what an energy drink was. I haven't seen anyone using the tubing mechanism here (it was basically like IV tubing) but now I'm going to have to start calling this combo firewater again. At the same bar, we met a "funny guy from Holland who loved American shows such as Jerry Springer"--I can't imagine the ideas some people must have of life in the U.S.

I got hungry reading all my descriptions of meals, especially the desserts in Austria. Now I'm craving pastries, ice cream and espresso. If I get back to visit these spots, I have my own little guidebook of restaurants and favorite dishes (and it would be curious to see which spots still exist). And, there's some self-awareness in realizing I've always had a "thing" for outdoor/local markets, checking out the local food customs and getting a crepe anywhere I can! Food and people watching--definitely two of my priorities in life.

As I often find with travel, reminiscing about some of the misadventures brings some of the biggest laughs. After a day exploring Innsbruck, we got on the wrong bus in Kufstein and ended up at the end of the line--at the bus depot with the non-English speaking driver. Thankfully, we carried the business card from the hotel and between our couple words of German and the driver's wife's broken English, we managed to explain our situation. They actually gave us a ride back to the hotel on their way (though my guess is that it was out of their way) home. One of our more memorable moments!

I'm going to go through and make a list of some of our favorite spots on the trip. I would love to hear from anyone who has been to them or has other suggestions or feedback from trips to the same cities...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Regents Seven Seas Cruise: Our Special Treat Vacation

It was somewhat surprising that we landed on the idea of a cruise for our anniversary trip last year. We'd only been on one other cruise--the long weekend Carnival cruise to the Bahamas. This choice could not have been more different. Truthfully, my faithful reading of the St. Pete Times travel section is what led us down this path. They had a great article about some of the luxury vacation deals available, and reading about Regents and their Baltic Seas cruise, I got pretty excited. We were having trouble coordinating everything, as we wanted some time on our own in addition to the cruise, so we enlisted the help of our AAA travel agent. We quickly got it narrowed down to a 7 day Regents cruise of the Baltic with time before and after on our own, in Stockholm and Copenhagen.

The trip was a wonderful experience in so many ways, but more on our ports later. I have to share the Regents experience...if you haven't experienced it and are ever looking for a real treat, look no further. I remember my husband's exact words as we prepared to board, "Well now, we'll see what $X gets you, and if it's really worth it". By the next evening, I remember him commenting on all he had seen so far as answer to that question. The first thing you notice on Regents is the service and the lack of crowds. The ships are fairly sizable, yet carrying significantly less passengers so it never feels crowded. All cabins are suites and the cruise is all inclusive (food and drink, plus at this time they were including all excursions as well).

Stepping in to our cabin was a pleasant surprise after our stay in a Stockholm hotel with efficient (tiny) Swedish style rooms. We were in the lowest cabin class, which was a balcony suite, larger than most hotel rooms. The bathroom was well appointed, with a full soaking tub, separate shower, double sinks and as much room as our entire Carnival cabin. The next delight was a walk in closet! The room had a curtained off sitting area, with a couch, two chairs and a small table which converted each morning for room service breakfast. A small balcony provided a spot to sit and enjoy the scenery. Our room attendant greeted us, gave us a tour of our suite and then fulfilled our requests for our small mini fridge (again, all included). It was stocked with soda, juice and mixers and she found out our preferences for what we'd want most, as well as our choice of two bottles of liquor or wine for in room. Off to a great start!

Service was impeccable from the beginning. All the servers and bartenders seemed familiar from the first day, and were pretty consistent in calling you by name and recalling your cocktail choices. Every question or request was answered with ease, and the service felt attentive yet unobtrusive.

The dining is flexible on Regents, so no seating times or need to dine with strangers (though we'd had fun doing so on our other cruise), but there are 2 specialty restaurants that require reservations. We made these right away, so we had good options and planned around our ports of call. The french restaurant required formal dress, though I think Regents has moved away from even this now. Otherwise, Country Club Casual was the evening attire, though I think they've renamed this also, to more accurately reflect button down shirts preferred (i.e. no golf shirts at this "country club"). I like to see people dressed up and enjoy it myself, so I don't mind that aspect of cruising. It adds something to the experience.

Which leads me to the passengers. Not only were the crowds minimal, they were nice to be around. We were surprised by how many families were on board, and then again more surprised by how well the children could handle sitting down to a nice dinner or going on a tour. Obviously, these were children initiated to travel and dining out. The three year olds on this ship were more well behaved than just about everybody on our Carnival cruise (known as the party cruise apparently). The only difficulty with this well-travelled crowd was that we had no chance at the daily trivia quiz.

Truth be told, I had a lot of fun on both our cruise experiences. The Regents trip was a real treat, but I don't like limiting myself to one type of trip, or always having everything be so perfect. But, I have to say we had no doubts that those seven days of perfection were well worth it.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

It Only Took a Few Hours to Fall in Love

Sometimes it is surprising the places that capture you. My favorite places have little in common...sometimes I am enthralled by people watching and the culture in a large city, other favorites are inspired by a beautiful setting or the charm of a small town.

One of those surprising places for me was Visby on Gotland in Sweden--a port on our cruise, one which we knew little about and had few expectations. We were captivated by Sweden and the entire archipelago for its beauty. Gotland is like the summery paradise of the country. It really was a storybook place...made all the more so as the land of Pippi Longstocking, a favorite character of mine in youth. The walled, medieval city has beautiful church buildings and a quaint feel that made me feel at home even as a tourist. Even though groups were coming ashore from the ship, the town didn't feel overrun with passengers. I guess not being able to dock in a large port, rather having to tether in, helped with this. It was a very easy town to navigate and much more pleasant to explore on one's own than on a group tour. As we walked around the walled city and throughout the streets, I pictured myself living in many of the cottages along the way.

We were visiting on a crisp, summer day and the sky was pure blue to match the sea. However, even picturing the harsh winter weather, all I could think of was reading by the fire in one of the cottages. It was one of those places that maintains a sense of being away from it all, even as it has the modern conveniences of elsewhere. I believe that is often characteristic of islands. There is a special quality about islands--at once visited and loved by tourists but still special and isolated by the nature of their separateness.

Visby is one of those places a cruise ship exposes you to, that you might have never discovered otherwise. Visby teased us during the short day ashore, begging us to come back for more some day. A few hours was simply not enough. My husband and I both added Visby to our weather listings on our phones, frequently referring back during the cold winter--perpetuating the fantasy of the cozy fireplace scene. This place was definitely a surprise--and has probably stuck with me more than any other place I have been to for such a short time. We hope to make it back for a longer visit one day to get to know more of this place and hopefully continue to grow more fond of it...

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Memories of the True Baseball Trip

We have done quite a few independent trips to various baseball stadiums, and usually organize them on our own. However, for the Cal Ripken Hall of Fame induction, our research led us to believe in the value of group planning. With huge crowds expected, we were finding it hard to book a room and work out all the details. We were lucky to encounter Sports Travel and Tours on the internet. They put together all kinds of sports themed trips, though their specialty is baseball. Each summer they organize numerous baseball group tours.

Our trip itinerary started in Baltimore, with a visit to the Babe Ruth birthplace and museum--a small place with a big piece of baseball history (especially for two people who grew up near Baltimore and had never been there). The tour company does a good job welcoming everyone as well, with a little reception and kickoff for the trip. We then proceeded to a game at Camden Yards. Of course, this wasn't new for us, but Camden Yards is a must-see stadium. One of the first stadiums built in the now popular style of integrating stadiums in to the fabric and style of the city. It feels old and new all at once. It remains one of my favorite ball parks, though it is often empty nowadays as the Orioles aren't the team to see.

Our next stop was Philly. The Sports Tours incorporate some sightseeing, and so the bus made a stop to visit some of the historic sights. Like any organized group tour via bus, there is not a lot of freedom and you hit the highlights only. Unlike other tours, the main focus here is the baseball. The bus was very comfortable and not full, so each of us had room to stretch out and the ride was comfortable. Our leader was a teacher, and you definitely did not want to be late for "class". His rule was "on time is late". This created some anxiety for me as I pictured oversleeping and being made to sit at the back of the bus. However, our fearless leader was really great--you need that kind of discipline to make things run smoothly and he was enjoyable to talk to and really loved what he was doing (and why not?). The group was more diverse than you might imagine. Our group included: a set of grandparents with a young grandson, several couples of all ages, a father and daughter, a small group of guy friends, and 4 older lady friends as well as some parents and older children.

We saw an afternoon Phillies game. Nice stadium--good food and good crowd! Phillies fans are pretty die hard so the energy is always great. Our hotel was nearby (and the worst of the trip) so we left the game a little early (we were by now learning how we could get some flexibility and independence during the trip) and then took a cab in to the city for the evening. I would not have wanted to come to Philly and only seen the ballpark and the suburban hotel. We went in to South Street and enjoyed dinner and some nightlife--and were home early enough to catch the early morning bus.

Our next stop was NY. A great stadium tour at Yankee Stadium (just as the new park was being built...I'm glad we got to see the old park and all of the history). Love em, or hate em, the Yankee's history is amazing (and my travel partner was lucky not to get any trouble for wearing his "I LOVE NY, Its the Yankees I Hate" shirt, but had it been a game day I'm not so sure).

We did a city tour by bus, which was the worst part of the trip. We had debated getting off at lunch and exploring on our own and we made a big mistake not doing so. It is just no use seeing NY by bus. It's a city to go out and explore. The tour was slowed down by the usual NY traffic, so we got to our hotel just in time for the group to turn around and leave for a Mets game. No thanks! We settled in for a bit and then took the subway to the game (after clearing it with our group)--a much more enjoyable time and riding the subway with the locals made us feel like we were actually in the city instead of peering out from a bus window. I was brave enough to wear my "Real Women Don't Date Yankee Fans" shirt since we were with a different crowd, and it was a conversation starter with the Mets fans on the subway. We met a couple who named their daughter Shea...you can guess why. Also got to see the Mets stadium before its last season...and it was definitely ready for replacement. Even though our time in NY was limited, we did a bit of walking that evening and stopped by the Russian Vodka Room--a great spot! They make great, homemade infused vodkas and authentic Russian food. As good as what we tasted in Russia this past year...

The Cal Ripken induction was by far the biggest memory of the trip. The Baseball Hall of Fame is an amazing place, whether a baseball fan or just intrigued by the history. Induction weekend is crazy in Cooperstown, but being with the travel group made it much better. We had time on our own, but were able to enter the hall as members/VIPS, avoiding a 2 hr. line. We did feel a bit like we were on the Tokyo subway inside, though. Cooperstown is a great little town and on induction weekend, you can visit with a number of Hall of Famers, get autographs and memorabilia throughout the streets. We just enjoyed taking it all in, and even ran in to some people we knew from Baltimore. The crowds were unbelievable. If you drove in, you most likely paid $20-50 to park on someone's lawn and walked a distance. Our group had chairs set up for us, and even passed around some cool rags because it was a scorcher. Some people purchased VIP seats and were right up front. The crowd probably stretched for 1/2 mile up the hill.

The induction ceremony was really inspiring. I've always admired Cal and became a bigger fan that day. He embodies what I think of when I think of baseball and a role model for the kids playing little league. He has continued to do a lot in the community and wants to share that love of baseball.

Tony Gwynn was also inducted and I got to learn more about him and come to admire him as well. There were many fans that traveled all the way across the country, including a mother and son in front of us who had down a whirlwind stadium tour all summer leading up to this. Wow! I was jealous! Though, I have enjoyed spreading our tour out more over the years--that might be a little too much baseball all at once for me. I like to be able to enjoy the cities as well as the stadiums.

I was impressed by Sports Travel and Tours. They did a great job organizing the trip and keeping things on track. Other than our hotel in Philly, all the accommodations were nice and we had good tickets and a very smooth trip. Its not something I would do all the time--we tend to prefer a little more flexibility and adventure, but it was nice to have someone organize everything for you. I would particularly recommend it for big events like the Induction. I know they also do World Series and Superbowl trips, which would probably be worthwhile as well.

We're down to only 8 stadiums left on our quest...and may have to go back after that and revisit some, such as the 2 NY stadiums, that have been rebuilt since. It's a great way to see the U.S., while taking in the American sport...

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Adventures in Toronto

Toronto's a great, international city with so many things to explore. We were only there for a couple days this trip, but were able to enjoy several great highlights. I checked off a new stadium, and it could not have been better. It was the one time things cooled off in the middle of this crazy, hot summer. The roof was open and the night air was great!

Some of the things we enjoyed on this visit:

Kensington Market:
Loved this diverse area in/near Chinatown with all types of restaurants and food vendors. We had a great lunch, and you could spend a lot of time exploring all the hidden gems. I had to top it off with a delicious bubble tea, but next time I'd spend more time exploring and shopping amongst all the vegetable and herb markets--and then stop and get some reflexology for my tired body.

"Hop on, Hop Off" tour:
These are one of our favorite ways to get the lay of the land in any city. Some of the tours are better than others, and of course they visit some of the more touristy spots (but, hey, I am a tourist after all!), but we always look at it as transportation plus a way to get a great overview. Because you can get on and off, let it take you to different areas and explore at will. Most times, they give you two days for the same price, so we get it the first day and take full advantage of it for both the tour and generally getting around. We've been on some form of "hop on, hop off" everywhere from Savannah, GA to Helsinki, Finland.

I got a much better sense of Toronto's layout this time doing this. Our first driver was obviously tired after a long day, but the next day we had very helpful drivers with a lot of knowledge. In Toronto, Grey Line offers one, but we actually did a smaller one (in a green van) that left from our hotel. It was a slightly better deal (and came with a boat tour for a few bucks more, though we didn't do that this time) and it was fully air conditioned/enclosed, which was necessary in the heat wave.

The Distillery District:
We met a friend here one afternoon and I walked around and made it through most of the shops. The old distillery buildings are lovely and there are a variety of shops, workshops/artist's studios and restaurants. My favorite was the artisanal chocolate shop, Cube (art made with Rubix cubes), and a great jewelry store representing various artists/jewelery makers.

We enjoyed our hotel--The Sheraton Centre, as it was very centrally located and comfortable. It's a huge place, but I liked that it had a lot of amenities (great gym, indoor/outdoor pool, several restaurants). It is connected to PATH, Toronto's 28 km underground walkway connecting shops,services and entertainment. This would be especially handy in winter (though not bad in a heatwave either).

My general travel methodology is to enjoy some variety--take in the "must sees" but don't feel pressured to see them all, and don't neglect to enjoy neighborhoods, dining and day to day things that are the life of any city. Most of my favorite moments are those discoveries, and people watching. Toronto is a city with such variety that you can have a very different experience on every visit, and there's still more to see and do.

Last tip...if driving up and back from the U.S. (or flying out of Buffalo) allow plenty of time. There is a lot of construction on the QEW and of course, the border crossing can vary widely. We allowed more than the expected time (with extra check in time) and still missed our flight out of Buffalo. And, the Buffalo airport is not somewhere you want to spend a lot of time! (Though the Southwest airlines staff was great and we made it home safely, just several hours later with a stop along the way.)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

No Baseball Here, But Plenty to Like: Niagara on the Lake, The Falls, Ice Wine and More

I described the town of Niagara on the Lake (NOTL) as "enchanting" and it was definitely my favorite part of our recent trip.

We stayed in a private apartment, found through the Chamber of Commerce. I did a lot of research online and debated over several accommodation options. I was surprised to find the chamber's accommodations booking site and the variety of options they had--that's a first for me and I'll be checking out Chambers of Commerce more often now. NOTL has many bed and breakfasts...but sometimes, a B &B is a little too cozy for our tastes. My husband isn't big on the breakfast part, either, and I'm just as happy with a bagel and coffee (or a delicious blueberry scone which I enjoyed each morning from the bakery in NOTL). I really wanted to be right in the center of town...and not having been there before, my instincts and choices turned out great. It's worth checking out alternative options like this. It made a nice change from hotels and gave us room to spread out and feel like temporary residents. And, the best part is that we were right in the middle of the town, above the stores (a Cows Ice Cream store! Wow--that would be bad for my waistline if I lived there!).

NOTL is pretty well known and so it gets pretty crowded with tourists, but not being there on the weekend, we didn't find the crowds to be a problem. You can definitely spend a lot of money there too--between the shops, the restaurants and the ice wine!

We did a wine country tour, with Jeff Sanderson (Wine Country Escapes). Found him online as well--there are several tour options you can find online, but his smaller operation was personable and worked great for us. Jeff was our personal tour guide and it was just us on the tour so we had complete flexibility. We made it around to several wineries and Jeff took us to some of the lesser known spots. We started with a tour at Jackson Triggs and went to about 6 wineries for tastings. The region is known for ice wine and we got our fill! Made some great purchases and discovered some pretty good bargains at the lesser known places. My recommendations: the "wine sticks" from Dr. Joseph (like pretzels made with grape flour), any wine from 2007 (apparently the best season in a long time--we heard about, and tasted it, over and over again), and ice wine martinis--yum!

Our tour ended with dinner at Epicurian, which was right near our apartment in NOTL. Great food (and if the weather's good, check out the beautiful courtyard)! The only down side was that it was a fixed menu for the wine tour (a few entree choices).

I could have moved in to our little apartment. I got up every day and walked for about an hour all around the town. The homes and the grounds are amazing. But, I realized on my early morning walks--it takes a lot of maintenance...you could see the "behind the scenes" work early in the morning, when yard men, roofers, painters, street cleaners, trash removal, and all natures of repairmen were at work. And, the street cleaning and trash removal made ear plugs a must in the apartment (there are pros and cons to being in the middle of things).

On the way in to town, we made the requisite stop at the Falls. It was packed, but we were lucky to get there late in the day. If you want to do the Maid of the Mist ride, I'd recommend getting there late(in summer, it's open until around 7) as the wait was short. And, what a great thing to do on a hot day. I loved it! The Falls are undeniably amazing and the rainbows were incredible that day. There's plenty to do there, from Imax movies to various rides and tours, but I don't know how much of that (and waiting in the lines) is necessary. Definitely go to the Canadian Falls if you're visiting--well worth the border crossing. The American Falls don't compare.

I'd highly recommend a visit to the area. There are so many wineries and different little towns to check out in addition to NOTL and the falls. Great restaurants, farmers markets, and it's the kind of area that inspired strolling the shops, taking a picnic, or having a leisurely dinner (followed by ice wine!)...

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Pittsburgh: 4th of July Rowdiness

We started off on a bad note in Pittsburgh: our hotel room wasn't ready for check in at 4 PM. Two free drink coupons didn't really make up for it, but at least our wait wasn't long (beware the challenges of travelling on holiday weekends, especially when a big rivalry game is scheduled). And, can I just ask, where are the supposed cookies the Doubletree promises? I smelled them, but I guess they'd given them all away to Phillies fans.

I had long heard about The Church Brew Works so we sought it out. The Church is definitely worth checking out. It's a brewery and restaurant in an old Catholic church. Pretty amazing looking, and great food and beer. They have a nice lineup of styles of beer, including seasonals. And beer is considered holy water to some people...

We had heard "The Strip" was an area to check out...and our cabbie explained it was a straight shot down the road so we attempted to walk. I'd probably advise against it, though I'm a walker so it didn't bother me. Definitely wouldn't feel comfortable doing it by myself or in the dark--kind of sketchy and some fairly empty patches.

We happened upon a cool place called Kaya--Caribbean cuisine (looks like a great place for dinner) and enjoyed some nice drinks at the bar. They had some pretty creative cocktails. Finished hanging out on a porch overlooking the street at a sports bar--nothing special but nice to sit outside and some amusing people watching (the beginning of the rowdy, yelling behavior we saw time and time again in Pittsburgh). A group of women on the street below was thoroughly enjoying yelling obscenities up to a group at the bar--entertaining since we were safely removed from the action. Proceeded by Phillies fans partying (and singing) late in to the night (3 A.M.) in the hotel:-(

The Strip definitely didn't live up to the hype. The market there during the day is what's cool--visit that and don't expect a lot of nightlife. If we had known better, we'd probably have skipped it and gone to Southside, which we enjoyed a couple nights later.

Pittsburgh apparently is known for its fireworks shows and it was quite spectacular. With the river view, it's a great place for the 4th. Huge crowds gathered and we just found a spot to stand near the bridge to take them in. Be warned: huge crowds and you don't want to be driving through the traffic. It was again pretty rowdy on the downtown streets after--huge police presence and once again, experienced the yelling, angry crowd of women...

Our favorite spot for evening entertainment was Southside. For nightlife, it had the best variety. A favorite spot: The Library--a library themed restaurant and bar with menus presented in old books, with great food ("tapas style" but huge portions on their small plates). I had delicious (and huge) scallops and the Edgar Allen Sweet Poe-Tatoes:-) Also fun to check out: The Tiki Bar and Lava Lounge.

I'd recommend: The Church Brew Works Brewery, Kaya, Southside, the incline rides (but beware, no windows so it is very unpleasant during a heatwave), PNC Park, Andy Warhol Museum

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Trip to Pittsburgh and Toronto, eh?

Our most recent adventure was a weeklong trip--starting in Pittsburgh, then driving up to Canada and spending a couple days in Niagara on the Lake and on to Toronto for a couple days. Might sound like kind of an odd trip, and I often find myself explaining our seemingly odd destinations--reason: our goal to visit all the MLB stadiums. After this year we're down to 8! While we are certainly not the only baseball fans who have done this, I think more people would enjoy a similar "quest". Sure, we like baseball and especially seeing the stadiums. But, it's also a great way to see a wide array of cities. We've been many places we would not have otherwise gone, but for this quest. And, we've been pleasantly surprised by most.

I'll go back through and share more about this trip in general later, especially some of the Niagara portion and our tips. I will also do my best to recount some of the past baseball trips, especially for anyone who might be interested in doing the same thing, or who just happens to be going to one of the cities and wants to catch a game. I like baseball, but I can probably remember a lot more about the atmosphere, food in the ballpark and the town than most of the games...

Visits to the stadiums:

Pittsburgh: Huge sports town, and we saw them play the Phillies over 7/4 weekend so the city and stadium were hopping! (maybe a bit more than I would have preferred, our hotel was a little noisy/rowdy). Pittsburgh has a great stadium; beautiful location on the riverfront and fun to walk across the bridge which is closed to traffic for games.

My smart husband chose club level seats--perfect since we went to a day game and the heat index was about 100 F. Being able to spend time in the air conditioned concourse was well worth it! And, with the crowds, having a separate entrance (no lines) was a huge bonus (which we almost missed by the way--don't wait at the general entrance if you have club seats).

The stadium is well laid out and you can get every kind of ballpark and Pittsburgh/regional food (pierogies, Primanti brothers sandwiches, local beers). They even have an "all you can eat" section (hot dogs, burgers, sodas, etc.-limited menu)! The club section had standard food, plus ice cream, Chinese food, a custom sausage grill, and a full bar. I took note of the giant, handmade pretzel but wasn't quite that hungry (I think it was $15, so I wasn't about to eat just 1/2 of it). Food and lots of it is big in Pittsburgh and the ballpark doesn't disappoint in that regard. Great place to see a game! Obviously big sports town all around and the inner state rivalry and holiday weekend made this a big game weekend, even if baseball's not the city's highlight sport.

Toronto: My first time at the stadium but my husband's 2nd trip there. Our local friend told us the roof is rarely open, but hubby's two for two. It was a beautiful night and we got to sit under the stars (it poured earlier, so the heat had finally let up). Once again, pretty big crowds because the Red Sox were in town (so, mostly Red Sox fans). The crowd was kind of rowdy, but it seemed that was mostly the Toronto fans--I guess the Red Sox fans weren't going to be obnoxious when they were beating the tar out of the Blue Jays. Some of the hecklers from Toronto cracked me up. One guy in our area kept yelling "This is my section, not Red Sox Section. Go back to America!" which had all of us (even the die hard Sox fans) laughing (the Blue Jays fans had to laugh or they would cry, and the Sox fans had to be good sports considering the score). Even though it was a bad game, the atmosphere was great. Though it's not brand spanking new, this place does baseball "indoors" well and has some neat features. I love watching the fans viewing the game from the hotel rooms that look on to the field (gotta check that out next time!). I'm all for retractable roofs--our dome in Tampa Bay just doesn't do it for me. Toronto's ballpark has a great array of food, and decent beer (they even had a pretty decent tasting wine there).

Of course, the great thing about Toronto is it is such a fun and diverse city--and there's plenty to do before and after the game. If you're a beer fan--don't miss The Bier Market on the Esplanade (not to far from the park). Great beer selection, esp. the Belgian styles, and delicious food (try the mussels!). It gets pretty packed, but its worth standing at the bar for the beer and mussels. We've been there twice now on 2 different trips, and had the same great bartender--even in a packed bar, he takes the time to educate you on the beers, answer questions, and offer suggestions. Like any "connoisseur" you can feel his passion.

The Distillery District is another neat area--we grabbed a bite and a beer there before the game and I checked out some of the shops. Creative jewelry, hand crafted items, and artisan chocolate (tried the Hazelnut and Pop Rocks Truffle and the 30 yr aged Balsamic Vinegar Truffle-yum!). And, after the game, the Entertainment district is within a few blocks, so there's plenty to do...though we weren't quite up for the late night clubbing scene so we were heading home when most people were just heading out for a long night...

More to come...