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?