2012 will be remembered by me for many reasons. Certainly the travel I did in 2012 ranks up there as do the many fun memories with family and friends. But another memorable aspect of 2012 will be the food and wine! Here is a small tour of the most memorable ones… mostly food…
At Salt Lick, outside of Austin, Texas, the year started with some phenomenal BBQ!
Wine, wine, wine
A few wine tastings with friends and some touring allowed me to cover a lot of ground here! Virginia and Moldova stand out as unexpected wine places for me. While I was not able to bring a lot of wine from Moldova, Virginia was a different story!
All but one of the bottles I bought in VA! The state can thank me later.
Deliciousness from Moldavia
As far as I understand, northeastern Romania and Moldova are known as Moldavia. The region was an independent/autonomous state between the 14th century and the 19th. I could see quite a few similarities between the two modern areas when I visited Iasi (Romania) and Moldova. One of the similarities I saw was in the food. My favorite dish was pork and mamaliga (a sort of polenta). And my favorite dessert papanași (papanash; a fried pastry stuffed with jam and soft cheese). I could eat these every day (an almost did!).
Mamaliga (polenta) and pork – typical food dish
A homestyle wine tasting
One of my favorite events is the quarterly wine tasting with friends. Our Frog’s Leap wine tasting (normally, we do not focus on one winery in these tastings) was outstanding and the food was a large part of that. After looking at the following pictures, could you disagree?
Cheese and crackers couldn’t be absent!
Lobster dip served in cucumbers
Chocolate bomb anyone?
I got to try one mean chocolate dessert at The Oval Room, across Lafayette Square from the White House (which I also got to tour this year!). This picture -no- no picture, can ever do this magnificent monument to desserts justice…
Chocolate S’more Bomb with cookie crumble and salted caramel
Mofongo from Puerto Rico – in Tampa!
I have written about having great Cuban food in Tampa but over Thanksgiving weekend, I went for my favorite Puerto Rican dish: mofongo with fried pork chunks!! MMM!!!
Paris, oh, Paris
Forget the fancy restaurants and all that frou-frou stuff. Paris has awesome small “mere-et-pere” type of places with deliciousness galore. I am lucky to be an eternal Paris visitor and past resident. This allows me and my friends to enjoy these little-known places whenever I visit. However, I still enjoy discovering a new unpolished jewel, like the place in Montmartre where I had this delicious potato-and-egg-topped salad (along with a mini carafe of red wine!).
Of course, Paris’ chocolate houses are a must – and a tour of them should be de rigeur unless you are allergic to the stuff! I always stop by to enjoy some of Paris’ finest chocolate crafts.
Italy. What can I say?
No words are needed when it comes to Italy and food. Here are some of the images from my visit there in April (discovering new and re-visiting old places).
Suppli fried rice ball – mmm!!
I love how the Campo de Fiore is reflected in this glass of wine
Coffee the AM I arrived… dropped our luggage at the apt and went out for breakfast. SO. GOOD.
My plate full of our appetizers on our first night in Roma
Year end: always a time for food!
For Christmas eve (Nochebuena), I cook the traditional Cuban meal. Instead of showing a beautiful serving plate or bowl with the end result, I decided to leave the end result to the imagination and show you the work in progress. I love making my black beans and Cuban pernil!
Now good food didn’t end on Nochebuena. On our day trip to the charming southern towns of Newnan and Senoia, we had some really good southern food (always comfort food!) right at the square in Newnan. Those sweet potatoes were outstanding!
The year ends
The year went away like the dessert from this plate – it leaves me wanting more. What a year it was!
I have been traveling with some frequency to Washington, D.C. for business. While I get to stay at some nice properties, I have been underwhelmed at what should be one of the most fun spots of any hotel: the bar. And maybe for that reason, I have been remiss in exploring the specialty cocktails that the mixologists may be serving at these bars. This sad state of affairs took a turn for the better – for the MUCH better – when I stayed at the Sofitel Lafayette just about across the park from the White House.
Le Bar at the Sofitel Lafayette was not my first encounter with a Le Bar. My first was at the Sofitel in Chicage where I enjoyed one of their specialty drinks: the Wrigleyville.
Taking it from the top
A few step back though before I get to their special cocktails. I first went to the DC property’s Le Bar the night I arrived just to have a quick meal as it was getting late so I was pretty much focused on eating and getting to my room. However, the bar area immediately grabbed me:
And I hear that in warmer times, the outdoor seating area is great to take in DC – and people watch.
Chocolate in my mind. What is new?
The following day I returned for a chocolate delight “tea” included in the winter special rate I had gotten. It was delicious and the hot chocolate perfect for the cold and humid late fall afternoon.
On the last night of my stay, I spent more time at Le Bar sampling some of their specialty cocktails and the appetizers on offer. The bar manager and mixologist, Alan Jones, walked me through a couple of his specialty drinks – the Lafayette and the Senegal – before sharing with me one of his favorite wines: Argentina’s Clos de Siete.
The Lafayette, a Bourbon-based drink (I will let Alan tell you the exact recipe in person at Le Bar!), had a delicious smoky flavor that could make me drink quite a few back to back without blinking. But, this was not the night for that.
It was at this point the croque monsieur bites were brought out. I have to say the competed VERY favorably with any croque monsieur I ate in France proper!
The Senegal was up next. Made from spiced rum, tamarind and a couple of other ingredients. It was extremely refreshing and a great alternative to a caipirinha which was Alan’s goal.
The Clos de Siete
The Clos de Siete, a blend of mostly Malbec and Merlot but also Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. It was a very enjoyable red with strong personality and intense flavors that I can’t wait to find in my hometown. Somewhere before this wine the duck confit appetizer was brought out. Not something I would order on my own but I took Alan’s word that it was outstanding. And so it was!
A new pursuit
This tasting gave me my first real experience exploring the art and/or science of developing cocktails – all these years missed! But thanks to Alan and Sofitel’s Le Bar, I have discovered a new pursuit
Disclosure: I paid for my stay at the Sofitel at a publicly available rate. The offerings at the bar were courtesy of the Sofitel. I write this post because I was very pleased with the offerings!
Normally, I write about going somewhere but Frog’s Leap winery just came to me instead of me going to it – a phenomenal wine tasting with friends and good food!
Since 2001, I have been part of a wine tasting group of friends. Some have cycled out when they moved out of town but the group has mostly been the same since 2003/2004. It makes for a great night of tasting wines, catching up, and getting a little silly. And usually, discovery of some good wines. This past weekend we had one of these tastings. And that night was not to be different!
Our friends J&J were in charge of the tasting and it was held at my house. Being in charge meant they picked the theme, the wine to go with the theme, and munchies to go with the wine (cheeses, chocolate, fruits, etc.). In 11 yrs we have done “new world” vs. “old world” wines, blind tasting of reds with high typicity (how well a wine represents the grape varietal’s “agreed-upon” traits), wines of country X (“Italian reds”), wine X across several wine regions that make it (“Cabs from Australia, California and Chile”), and so on.
This time, our hosts decided to do wines from one winery. We had never done that! They picked Frog’s Leap as J1 is a
“Fellow of the Frog“. I have had Frog’s Leap before (Rutherford!!) and liked it a lot but had not tried, for example, their whites. So this was going to be a new way of sampling wines for our group. I linked their site above and it will take you to an intro. Normally, I skip intros but this one is playful! Ribbit. (But don’t go there now – finish reading this and THEN go.)
Cork by Frog’s Leap, Fingers by Schmitt
As part of the tasting, we have munchies. Partly so stomachs don’t empty throughout the evening (most people eat a light dinner beforehand), and partly to help the tasting of the wines as some foods help highlight the flavors of the wine (whereas others can make the wine flat; that is part of the learning to do in a wine group!).
What was served? Well, here, let me tell you…
- Camembert and Chevre from Calyroad Creamery in Sandy Springs http://calyroadcreamery.com/ For the apricot/chevre, dried apricots were diced up with the chevre in a food processor.
- Cheddar – Cabot Reserve Aged Cheddar
- Prosciutto rolls from Costco
- Savannah Bee’s Honey from Whole Foods for the cheeses or the prosciutto rolls
- 3 types of Ghirardelli chocolates
- Raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and dried cherries
- Baguette from Breadwinner Cafe in Sandy Springs, GA http://www.breadwinnercafe.com/index.html
- Cucumbers and parsley were from Split Cedar Farm from North Georgia (bought at the Sandy Springs Farmers’ Market)
- Maine Lobster Dip was from Costco and it was served in cucumber slices!
The Maine lobster dip
Cheese and crackers couldn’t be absent!
Pistachios and other items ready for the tasting
- Delicious chocolates await us…
Briefly, Frog’s Leap was founded in Napa Valley about 30 or so years ago at a place known as Frog Farm. It is claimed that frogs were raised there for sale to the big city (San Fran). Don’t worry, that’s a long time ago and the vines are free from any frog-smell! It produces – organically – both whites and reds, with an annual production as of this writing of about 60,000 cases. Besides the wine, the next best thing they have is their motto: “Time’s fun when you’re having flies.”
The moment we have been waiting for: the wines! The stars of the evening were:
- 2009 Sauvignon Blanc
- 2011 Sauvignon Blanc
- 2009 Chardonnay
- 2009 Zinfandel
- 2007 Merlot
- 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon
Half the stars of the show! Let the games begin!
Both Sauvignon Blancs were well received by the group. Clearly one being 2 yrs younger than the other would translate into more of an edge on the younger one but everyone felt that fit well if you are wanting to drink a white wine outside on a hot day. It felt more refreshing than the 2011 and someone said it sort of popped on your tongue, alluding to a slight sense of effervescence without actually being effervescent. The 2009 had nice acidity and stronger fruit flavors – it paired very well with the raspberries but not with the blackberries, something we couldn’t quite understand. I feel I could drink these on a summer day but also other times of the year with certain dishes, especially strong-flavored fishes (e.g., salmon) as it would help counter those flavors.
The Chardonnay was a pleasant surprise as it wasn’t as oaky as many of us expected – which was good in our book. It almost had an old world style which explains at least why I liked it as I generally do not like California Chardonnays but do like French ones. It had a buttery sensation to it but it was not too strong along with good fruit flavors. Very mineral and crisp. We noted the pistachios went well with it.
We moved on to the reds at this point and first in line: the Zinfandel. It had a nice bouquet and light tannins. While it has a spicy start, it was not overly spicy. We found out it went well with the raspberries too. As with the prior wines, it had a short finish. I really enjoyed this Zinfandel.
On the Merlot, I can tell you it was the one wine the majority said was their favorite of the group because it felt well-balanced. It went really well with Ghirardelli’s Cabernet Matinee which we kept calling Cabernet Manatee (initially, someone WAS really confused!). It had a strong scent of grapes and probably the strongest finish of the group. Probably the extra years helped make it the favorite – wine, after all, gets better with age!
Finally, we hit the Cabernet Sauvignon. It had strong flavors of cherry and wasn’t a full-bodied red which pleased most in the group though a couple of us gravitate towards full-bodied reds. It was well-balanced like the Merlot and a pleasure to drink.
What struck us all was how good the wines were across the board. One cannot go wrong choosing any Frog’s Leap wine, it seems, and that is good to know! Now we all think we are fellows of the frog (lower case as it is unofficial) and continue to be best friends with the Fellow of the Frog in the group, J1, for having chosen well and introduced us more fully to this winery.
And the Non-Sensical!
Oh, and what is a wine tasting with this group (or others, I am sure) without the non-sensical things that are said or done. OK, not all are for this blog, and not all do I remember why they were said (except I jotted them down in my handy notepad) but they are part of what makes a wine tasting with friends so much more fun than one at another venue. A very small sample to keep this blog from being banned… and to protect the innocent:
- Reminiscing about a wine someone had had elsewhere, the descriptor was “sweaty sock” – wish I knew what wine that was to not try it!
- Overheard: “Can you pour some honey on my prosciutto?”
- Overheard: “Come from the backside”
- All fun and games until someone breaks a chair…
The main explanation of the non-sensical:
Before and after…
If you are interested in starting a group like ours, feel free to drop me a note here or in my Facebook page www.facebook.com/ilivetotravel
Tampa, Florida may not be at the top of your destination list but being close to great beaches and other attractions such as Busch Gardens – and close enough to Orlando - it may be a place you will visit some day. And if you do, do NOT miss out on the great hole-in-the-wall Cuban food places in the city! I have been going to Tampa regularly for over 20 yrs. and I enjoy eating the real stuff.
Masitas de cerdo! (Photo credit: http://necessaryindulgences.com/2010/12/el-ambia-cubano/)
La Teresita (http://www.lateresitarestaurant.com/) (in Columbus Ave.) used to be the grand dame of Cuban restaurants in Tampa about 20 yrs ago. Grand dame does NOT mean elegant or fancy. That would be all wrong for a Cuban restaurant. But it was the place with the best food and where everyone went. However, somewhere down the road, it became different. Other places came up. And some of us stopped going.
Florida Bakery (http://local.yahoo.com/info-14447698-florida-bakery-tampa) (also in Columbus Ave.) has been a long standing place to go to for typical Cuban pastries, cakes, and sandwiches such as the famous Cuban sandwiches. Of course, Cuban coffee too; nothing like a cortadito (expreso with leche).
But other alternatives have come up so the typical places are not the ONLY ones around town anymore. And the other places are, in my opinion, better.
Arco Iris (http://www.urbanspoon.com/r/30/340198/restaurant/Tampa-Bay/West-Tampa/Arco-Iris-Tampa), also in Columbus Ave. and almost next door to Florida Bakery, offers really good food in a very homestyle environment. It is spacious and I typically haven’t had a problem getting a table.
Las Margaritas (http://www.allmenus.com/fl/tampa/60687-las-margaritas/menu/) in Hillsborough Ave. is a much smaller place and no frills. But the food is delicious – and cheap!
Pipo’s (http://pipos.com/) which, at last count, has 2 locations offers simple choices that are delicious. It has been around for a while and always consistent. Walk to the counter so you see what’s available and they serve you cafeteria style.
Angelito’s Bakery (http://www.cakes.com/bakeries/angelitos-at-la-caridad-bkry-5386/, where the former La Caridad was; the street sign still exists for La Caridad) has phenomenal pastries and seems a lot cleaner than Florida Bakery. And this one is in Hillsborough as well.
Mr. Empanada (several locations http://www.mrempanada.com/), while not strictly Cuban, deserves a mention. The fried empanadas are very similar to the ones I would eat for lunch in high school (ground beef, cheese, or pizza fillings). Except here, besides the ground beef ones, they have fillings I didn’t have as an option in high school such as guava, and cream cheese.
So if you go to Tampa, be ready to eat GOOD Cuban food and eat well – I do!
Any other favorite Cuban places in Tampa that you like? I am sure there are plenty I haven’t even discovered yet!
In Rome, once again, we enjoyed Italian cuisine (carbonara, mi amore!), wine, gelato, architecture, history, and watching people (tourists and locals alike). It seems like those are reason ENOUGH to go to Roma! Nothing like Rome to appreciate cultural diversity and food delights!
When I travel with friends, I don’t just travel with anyone. I travel with folks who love wine, food, exploring, and chilling – like me. One of my friend’s is a personal chef and she and her husband are big foodies (and so will be their baby one day!). Before the trip, they looked for opportunities to sample food beyond lunch/dinner. They found an awesome food tour in the Testaccio area of Rome, an area I had not explored or had even heard of before. The tour is organized by Eating Italy Food Tours, founded by a native from Philly. Domenico, also from Philly, was our tour guide that day and he was definitely the right guy to show us around! (Check them out at http://www.eatingitalyfoodtours.com/ .)
We arrived to the Testaccio area after passing a pyramid by a cemetery. Rome’s city walls seem to have been built around it. I had no idea there was a pyramid in Rome! It is called the Pyramid of Cestius as it was built as a tomb for a guy with that name. What was incredible to me is that it was built 10-20 yrs BEFORE Christ. It is incredible!
The food tour took us to the cemetery on the side of the pyramid which used to be where foreigners were interred in Rome in the not so distant past. It is referred to as the Protestants’ or the Englishmen’s cemetery. One of its most famous “eternal residents” is the poet Keats who died very young (I did learn something, see??). You must be wondering when am I getting to the food. So am I. So let me get back on track.
The route and targets of the tour
We started at the old local market which is marked for demolition in the very near future as they have built a brand new place for these folks. Sounded wonderful until our tour guide told us the vendors’ rent will be doubled which will likely put a few of them out of business. Yes, the old market wasn’t a beacon of perfection but it definitely had charm! Among the things we sampled was real mozzarella di bufala made by a lady named Lina - now I know how real mozzarella di bufala is supposed to taste like!! Here are some of the sights at the market:
This fish guy has been there for decades and his son and grandson now work with him.
Whose legs are those? It’s rude to put your feet out the window!
All sorts of goodness! (Where’s the chocolate??)
Carne Equina – an interesting stand…
After the local market, we meandered towards Volpetti which, as soon as I saw the sign, I recognized from an Anthony Bourdain episode I had recently watched! Volpetti is this piece of heaven on Via Marmorata, near the Pyramid. All sorts of cheeses, balsamic vinergars, cured and dried meats like prosciutto, etc. We got to sample (as we did everywhere in this tour) and my favorite was the San Daniele prosciutto (vs. Parma prosciutto – which was still good!). The San Daniele had a certain tinge of sweetness that I enjoyed. Needless to say, we loaded up on some goodies for that evening’s dinner (we decided there were too many good things not to devote one dinner in the apartment to them!). Prosciutto is worth reading about and sampling – here is a quick overview of this delicious piece of ham: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosciutto. An another that covers the difference between pancetta (bacon) and prosciutto (ham): http://italianalmanac.org/06may/ham.htm
Goodness at Volpetti
Right after Volpetti and further down Marmorata, we stopped at Barberini’s were the pastries all were calling my name, winking at me. Not being a cultural chauvinist, I understood they were tempting me. Of course I accepted the morsels we were given to sample including tiramisu in a tiny cup made of chocolate (modeled here by my friend Chris):
A nice array of pastries at Barberini
On our way to further destinations in the tour, we passed a hill called Monte Testaccio. If you don’t know any better, you walk right past it. It has vegetation and was behind a fence when we hit upon it. However, our tour guide stopped to tell us about it. Folks, it is not a real hill that mother nature (or Mother Nature, lest lightning strike me) created. In the old days, and I mean, the OLD days, people used amphoras to store and carry things. However, when they were used for olive oil, the amphoras were not really re-usable for long. So, they would break them up and pile them on what became a hill over time. Vegetation grew and the hill – someone discovered – would offer in its innards a great place to store wine at the perfect temperature! So in old days (not OLD days), small caves were built for this purpose. It no longer seems to be used for this but remains a great witness to how the old Romans did things. The area has become trendy with nightclubs while still hosting traditional trades like butchers.
After a little meandering, we next came to 00100 Pizza where we were in for a real treat: suppli – a cheesy fried rice ball that was a foodie’s dream.
As our mouths continued to water, we made it to the place, Da Bucatino, where we would have a traditional Italian lunch centered around bucatini, a thick and hollow spaghetti-like pasta (not common here in the States) in amatriciana sauce (my favorite red sauce). I did my best to clean the plate though all the sampling along the way was competing for space in my stomach!
Finally, after the day of sampling great cheeses, meats, pasta, and the like we ended up at a neighborhood gelato place called Giolitti. It has been there since the early 20th century. A place where the gelato and the panna are all homemade – true artisans! What a difference a homemade makes.
So, a little more off the beaten path than the Rome that most tourists see (including me in my first 2 trips there), yet a stone’s throw away from all those places, the Testaccio area offers not only great food but a different scene with history and charm to along with it. Don’t miss it next time in Rome!
Other things I enjoyed in Rome:
What other lesser known areas of Rome have you seen and would you recommend them to others?
(Photos taken with Canon EOS Rebel T1I)
In my recent trip from Rome to Dubrovnik, I had to connect through the excellent Munich airport. I had chosen a 3+ hr layover so I wouldn’t be worried about a tight connection. It was the right airport choice for a 3 hr layover!
Munich, as other airports in Europe, has a lot more going on than the average U.S. airport. Munich is one of the airports in Europe with the best setup for connecting through it. They say you can easily make very short connections. Though coming from Italy and going to Croatia, I had to go through immigration which had a line so I am not sure I would risk a 45 min. connection!
Soon after arriving I spotted a massage place offering from manicures to full-body massages. I decided I would take a back and neck massage for 30 mins to help me relax from an early start to my day (woke up around 530 AM!) and also since I was still sick with a cold. I figured anything that helped my body was a good thing – and it was.
After the massage, I sat down for lunch at a place offering typical German fare. I enjoyed wursts, sauerkraut, a pretzel with mustard, and, of course, a beer! Mmm!
Then, with still some time to kill, and with no real sense of purpose, I snapped a few odd shots with my mobile phone camera (which I admit is not the best). But I sort of like the shots as they do give a sense of the airport movement or activity . Looking at these, I wish I HAD taken them with the real camera! I love the reflections on the shiny floor!
When my friends and I decided upon a trip to Italy focused on Rome, I was really pumped to go back, see some familiar places and get to check off some that, though very important, I had failed to visit in my 2 prior trips to Rome (to my credit, they had been like 3-day stays each).
Lodging in Rome
All of us had prior experience with renting apartments while abroad as a way to get much cheaper lodging with the perks of a real kitchen, washer/dryer, and living room space so we could hang out late at night. www.vrbo.com is my starting point for any search like this. We found an apartment in Prati but, unfortunately, soon after booking, the building had some sewer problems so the agency that VRBO had connected us to, contacted us to offer other options. We took another apartment, very close to the U.S. Embassy (not for that reason) and paid the differential since it was a better apartment though it was beyond what we had hoped to spend. However, getting close to the date of travel and with not as many options for 3-bedroom apartments that we had liked when we first searched, we went for it. The agency that arranged the rental in Rome was very professional and helpful along the way with special requests; check them out next time you are headed to Italy: www.italyperfect.com. Our apartment’s owner was a marquesa, if that impresses you at all!
Living/Dining room was very spacious
So What Was the Plan?
Our individual goals in this vacations coincided a good bit. One set of friends had not been to Rome so they would have to cover some of the basics we already had. Pompeii and the Sistine Chapel were top of my list but more on those in other entries…
As soon as we decided on the trip, we “discovered” that there were 3 other basilicas outside of what is known as the Vatican. They are elsewhere in Rome but technically you are in the Vatican when you are in these basilicas. We decided that these would be a great item for our arrival day due to all the walking and metroing required to see them – hence, we would not be tempted by naps! We ended up leaving Sta. M. Maggiore for another day but we found these basilicas, though not as massive as St. Peter’s, impressive in their own right. The basilicas are:
- St. John Lateran (former home of the Popes until not long ago at all – who knew)
- St. Paul Outside the Walls (the clarification is needed: there is one INSIDE the walls; and yes, Rome still has segments of wall around it; again, who knew… oh, and St. Paul is buried here under the chains that held him captive)
- Santa Maria Maggiore (near the Termini station).
Rome has some fan-TAS-tic ceilings – check them out!
One of the main things for me to see in Rome (what an unfair thing to type… Rome has SO much that is a must-see!) was the Pantheon. Folks, it is a 100 years and change away from being TWO THOUSAND years old! Can you wrap your mind around that??? I can’t! And it is STILL the world’s largest un-reinforced concrete dome. I should have seen this on my first visit! Oh, and I had NO idea the hole at the top was open! Cleverly positioned and hidden drains take care of that water when it rains!
The oculus (giggle, giggle) “reflected” on the dome
We hit the Pantheon the day we went to the Papal Audience when we left the Vatican and started meandering streets. It was my 3rd Papal Audience with the last one having been WAY CLOSER to the Pope (check out my friend Chris’ account of that audience. As usual, the people watching sometimes is even better than the event itself!
Sweet looking but who knows if she is really a meanie!
Not sure who looks sillier but thanks for your service!
In that meandering, we happened upon the Gelateria del Teatro, a well-known gelateria due to the quality and uniqueness of the flavors of the gelato. It was OUT OF THIS WORLD! Take a look at this!!
We also walked around Piazza Navona always full of life and tourists and peddlers… That area is even more interesting and full of locals in the evening. Meander the side streets and find restaurants and other gelaterias (when in Rome, you are required to have gelato no less than 2 times per day!). There is a lot in that area of town just around the corner on a side street!
As we headed back to the apartment, we decided to take a short detour and go to the Trevi Fountain so one set of friends could see it for the first time but, more importantly, so we could throw our coin to ensure a return to Roma! Again, the people watching is superb. I loved taking a couple of pictures of this couple as they examined the fountain.
After recovering from all that walking, we headed to Hostaria Il Mozzicone in Via Borgo Pio right outside the Vatican, a place I had visited in my two prior trips. As usual the food was awesome (the carbonara is their specialty and the ONLY thing I eat there) and the service cold – but never mind the service; as long as you go in up front not expecting friendly, you will be OK. Below my carbonara!
Food has AWESOME food and a food tour is a great way to discover. We did a great food tour and highlight recommend that.
Finally, to help us walk off some of the food coma, we walked over to St. Peter’s for a great night time view of this majestic place, something I had not done before (the go at night part!). A great way to cap our day!
In this trip, I also discovered why Rome IS the eternal city -> http://ilivetotravel.me/2012/04/22/why-rome-is-the-eternal-city/
Pink macaron has Angelina Jolie lips. The purple macaron has macaron-envy. The pink macaron sticks its tongue out. Instigator. The wine glass stays out of it – so Switzerland.
From the Sofitel Water Tower in Chicago during the Windy City Tweetup.
In the first tweetup, the one in Austin, I found myself flight-delayed for the Friday night events AND also quite sick. While I greatly enjoyed the Saturday outings, I felt I had not gotten all that I had expected out of that tweetup. So the Windy City Tweetup was redemption for fate…
The journey to Chicago started, as many journeys lately for me, with Atlanta’s Hartsfield airport. Having just flown in to Atlanta the night before, I was less than excited to be doing the routine in reverse within 24 hours of landing in Atlanta… But, and it is a big but, this was for much more fun than a work trip. It was time for the long-awaited Windy City Tweetup.
Delta nicely was able to complimentarily upgrade me (both ways!) days ahead of the flights so I would avoid wondering at the gate “Will I make it?”. Thanks!
Three of us flying in were planning to meet upon arrival at ORD so I was hoping we would all be on time. Being the one to land first (by schedule, anyway), I was to make my way to the last person’s baggage claim area (of course, we ALL were flying different airlines to make it more complicated…) and also call up the car we had booked for a nice ride into town. Miraculously – the Tweetup gods must have been smiling upon us – we all landed within minutes of each other.
Our destination, the Sofitel Water Tower Hotel in Chicago we had booked a few months in advance. Sofitels are clearly nice hotels and it had been a while since I had stayed in one so I was thrilled to experience their service after a few years of experiencing others’ service.
Home Base in Chicago’s Water Tower District: My High Place
Even before the tweetup, the Sofitel Water Tower engaged with us via Twitter (@SofitelChicago). Two things: one, if you are a business and you will have a Twitter presence, it can’t be a one-way push of information. That is so 1999 web. You HAVE to engage. The Sofitel clearly knew this. That was a good sign for us that we had made a great choice.
I found out I had been placed at the 30th floor which gave me a nice view of the Hancock Tower straight ahead and Lake Michigan behind it. The room was very comfortable and inviting. A very nice spot in a high place in Chicago indeed!
The view from my high perch in Chicago – the Hancock Tower
Also, a nice treat awaited in the room: macarons! Check out the story about macaron envy…
My macaron-based welcome made me feel like a high-flyer!
We also had made plans to gather at the hotel’s bar “Le Bar“, where the hotel, once again, offered us a sampling of their appetizers of which the mini-burgers and the artichoke croquettes were my favorite. I also got to be the first customer to try their new signature drink named “Wrigleyville” which had peanut butter fluff & vodka and was served with a side dish of Cracker Jacks. I was not sure about a peanut butter flavored drink but it was actually outstanding. Kudos to the bar for the clever design!
The Wrigleyville drink and Cracker Jacks
After meeting up at the Sofitel with one of our local tweeps, we headed for The Pump Room at the Public Hotel Chicago. Though ground-level cleary a high place in terms of history, ambience and scene. A famous locale throughout the decades, I admit to only having discovered it as the tweetup was being planned. We enjoyed drinks and dinner there enjoyed the well-designed space. The bar areas were hopping with a great crowd – clearly a place to come and meet with friends in the Windy City.
The Pump Room at Public Hotel Chicago
So ended our first few hours in the Windy City Tweetup. It was a great start to the weekend and many thanks to the Sofitel Water Tower and The Pump Room for setting the right tone!
It all started with a friend telling me: “I am going to visit my cousin in Trinidad & Tobago over Thanksgiving, do you want come?” Well, the answer to that question is always “yes” (it is like a genetic thing with me) though then I have to check: can I, really. My parents would be in the midst of a move. Work was not in a hectic period. I could use points for more than half of the hotel stay. But my hometown airline didn’t travel to/from the destinations. My friend told me the relative was a foreign diplomat in T&T and that Curacao was also being thrown into the plans for a couple of days. After checking out flight cost, with this other new info, I thought this would be a good opportunity to go to places not in my top 20 but worth checking out nevertheless.
So, following my gut, like I did with the Greece opportunity, I went for it with less than a month’s notice. Phenomenal!
The flight Port of Spain was about 3.5 hrs from Miami. It was later in the evening so it was a mellow flight. We landed and the airport was pretty straightforward and on we went. I was dropped off at my hotel (my friend was staying with the relative) and deep sleep based on the late hour (around 1AM, if memory serves me right). The plans were for me to be picked up around 2PM since said-relative had to work part of the day. I did what came naturally to me: sleep in. After that, I unpacked, grabbed coffee, and relaxed outdoors in the pool area. I was picked up a little earlier (around 1PM) and we went for lunch.
View inland from my room at the Marriott Courtyard
Before talking about lunch, let me say I loved the variety of architecture around town. From old houses to modern office buildings, you can find a little bit of everything in Port of Spain!
Now to lunch… the place our local hostess picked offered local cuisine. I guess I need to be more specific since some may say there are two types of local cuisines in T&T… Stepping back, T&T had slaves brought over as most islands in the Caribbean. But, after slavery was abolished, the Brits (so civilized…) brought Indians as INDENTURED workers (read, slaves with pay). I will reserve further opinions on the topic… Anyhow, there is a more traditional Caribbean cuisine with fruit sauces, etc. but there is also Indian cuisine that is fully Trini. So, this first lunch place was more of the Caribbean cuisine but different than the Greater Antilles’ cuisine with which I am more familiar (rice and beans and some meat). The place was called Veni Mangé (come eat in some sort of French) (http://www.venimange.com/) My friend’s cousin (I will call her “the cousin” going forward!) has been there many times and rents a place from a sister of the owner. The place is located in a former house so the architecture appealed to me. The decor seems to be Haitian art (for sale). And the food, oh, the food! We ordered 3 dishes to share so we could try them all. Oxtail with dumplings, fried flying fish, and creole beef with eggplant. Plus side dishes and some tropical red juice from a fruit I didn’t recognize (even if I did grow up in the northern Caribbean…)
Lunch at Veni Mangé
The rest of the day we drove around various parts of town. Had some drinks by a yacht club a little north of town (I think by Diego Martin or past it, at least), hanging out at the Hilton outside terrace, and even a stop at a shopping mall (I could have been anywhere in ther U.S.)!
The beach to go to in Trinidad seems to be Maracas Bay. It is a short drive from Port of Spain that includes driving through a beautiful forest and the views of the sea from up high. However, due to some recent rains, the area of Maraval on the outskirts of Port of Spain had sustained high waters from the river and traffic moved slowly through part – however, we counted our blessings because the road had been closed earlier that day.
The flood damage in Maraval
At some point we stopped on a roadside stand where among the things they sold as various fruits soaked in chadon beni, a delicious mix of cilantro and garlic (sometimes with black pepper too). I tried the mango and it was outstanding (though at first it wasn’t appealing to me).
Me strongly studying my chadon beni options
The mango in chadon beni
Maracas was very empty on this weekday and we thought it was due to people avoiding Maraval, not being sure if the road would be passable. But after a little bit, people started appearing and the beach was a little more animated. It was a beautiful setting, not as cove-like as the beaches we would see in Tobago. Locals flock to this beach on the weekends and I can imagine it is a good place to be.
Maracas Bay beach
Finally, the thing to do in Maracas is eat bake and shark, a sort of sandwich of shark topped with any number of toppings you self-serve on it. Richard’s is the most famous and I hear they can have long lines. Much to our chagrin, it was closed as they were tiling the floor of the table area (upgrade! they must be doing well). We ate at another one in the area and the bake and shark lived to its fame!
Bake and shark goodness!
Our hostess suggested we spend a day in Tobago, known for its beaches and more geared to tourism than Trinidad (they have not invested heavily in tourism since they have lots of oil – though you could be forgiven for thinking it is a poor country; where do oil profits go?!). A ferry would take a few hours so we decided to just fly over there in 20 mins. Our flight over was at 8AM and the return was at 9PM. We decided against staying overnight the night before or the night of because we had such limited time in Trinidad & Tobago. Oh, and the day after, we had a 7AM flight to Curaçao! We planned to rent a car and drive around and also our hostess got a hotel room so we could shower before heading back to Trinidad.
The Caribbean Airlines flight was efficient and quick. Picking up the rental car at the Tobago airport was pretty straightforward. Our hotel was pretty close to the airport so we stopped to check it out and have breakfast which was pretty nice.
Boarding our plane to Tobago!
Unfortunately, neither the car rental agency person nor the hotel clerk were terribly knowledgeable about which beaches were better to explore and our hostess only knew the one by the main resort. The only nugget we got was that maybe Charlotteville and Englishman’s Bay were probably the ones to check out. Charlotteville was on the other end of the island and, given the island is so small, I suggested we go and that we go there first to do the longer drive first and then make our way back to the hotel making stops anywhere we wanted based on the time left.
It took us about 1.5 hrs to make it to Charlotteville driving on a coastal road (the highway) which, though small, was in good condition (this was to be true almost everywhere!). Right before getting to Charlotteville we passed a nice beach which the map had marked with many a SCUBA flag which must mean it has good snorkeling/diving going on. However, it was the morning of a rainy weekday so we didn’t see anyone at the beach.
Charlotteville seemed like a quaint town or village facing the beach. I was to learn many of the beaches here were in cove-like settings which were beautiful but which are very different from the expansive beaches in places like PR, Florida, etc. Again, the weather was not favorable so it was empty. I wish I had seen it with a little more life…
From Charlotteville we started off to Englishman’s Bay halfway back to where we started from. However, a piece of the road was sort of broken up due to rains, I suppose. So, off the car I got to find rocks to cover up the mud. With a deep step on the pedal and an almost empty car, the car passed and on we went. We stopped at Bloody Bay where a school bus full of kids was playing at the beach.
After a quick stop, we kept on going back but somewhere missed a turn. After driving through a beautiful forest-like area (it was a national park, we found out), we surfaced on the other side of the small island so we decided to just keep on going as we were starving. We stopped at a place right before Scarborough called Café Havana. It wasn’t really Cuban but was nice and open and just what we needed. It was next to a beautiful hotel overlooking a small cove. It would certainly be a place to stay at should there be a repeat visit.
Trinidad and Tobago was not in my top 20 of places to go. But this was a good opportunity that offered me seeing some of it through the eyes of a resident which is always better than just being a visitor. And I liked what I saw! I hope to return. Who would have told me at the start of 2011 that I was to see Trinidad & Tobago and Greece in the year? Living with spontaneity brings these happy surprises and new discoveries. Do you have any similar travel destination surprises?
Mykonos is known for many things in a wide range of mild-to-wild. The sights and pleasures range accordingly. But Mykonos is more than the headlines. The views and food are phenomenal as are the beaches. I enjoy a few days of this paradise coming straight from Atlanta via JFK and Athens…
After landing in Athens, I made a connection to my Olympic Airlines flight to Mykonos. The Athens airport was extremely modern and well-signed so it was pretty easy to do the connection. I had ample time so I ate something at an airport cafe and took advantage of the free-wifi the airport offers for 60 minutes. Flying over the Aegean was dreamy, seeing all those islands dotting that beautiful-blue Aegean Sea. It was a vision.
The Mykonos airport as can be expected is small but efficient. I was met by a car from the resort where I was going to stay, the Apanema Resort which I discovered and selected after referencing Trip Advisor. The hotel is across the water, separated from it horizontally by a road and by a boardwalk under construction right by the water’s edge, and vertically by maybe 20m. This gives the hotel great views of the sea and the cruise ships coming in and out of Mykonos. This one especially made for a sight right in front of us!
The hotel is a short walk from the northern edge of the Chora (“the main town” of Mykonos), about 500m. Not a bad walk but you do have to walk on a curvy road without sidewalks… They are finishing what looks like a boardwalk down below but I didn’t a way up near the hotel. In any case, the resort with its infinity pool, personalized breakfast til late and nice poolside area was a great choice for me.
So, I went to Mykonos as I wrote in another blog entry because I wanted to see one of the more popular Greek isles since I had limited time and because several people recommended Mykonos over Santorini as a solo traveler. Though I am not a bar scene person nor a beach bum, Mykonos was a perfect place to go. First of all, it is not just beaches and clubs. There are a couple of museums (which I did not get to see) that are recommended plus a 20-min ferry ride away is Delos Island, a remarkable visible record of ancient Greek history. In addition, there are so many people coming and going in Mykonos that sitting down to people watch can occupy plenty of time. Plenty of shops around for those who may enjoy walking around and perusing (not yours truly). Finally, and more my cup of tea, so much material for photography! From the architecture, to the people candids, to the sunsets. Plenty to photograph. I played with my camera all the time and greatly enjoyed it.
Regarding Delos Island, it is best seen with a tour guide who can tell you what you are looking at and the interesting history of the place. It is a good 2-4 hour visit depending on whether you want to do some solo (i.e., unguided) hiking. Be warned: no one stays in the island except archeologists and the last ferry out is at 3 PM so plan accordingly! The ferry leaves near Little Venice. There is a small museum and a small cafe. Sunscreen and water definitely recommended!
In terms of beaches, the hotel recommended Elia as more relaxing than Paradise but I ended checking out both. Elia was bigger but without as many facilities as Paradise. However, Elia still had a restaurant, clean restrooms and the like. In both beaches you can rent a chair and an umbrella for 6-8 euros and both offer bar service though in Paradise no one came by the 2 hours I was there. I hear Paradise becomes party central after 4 PM but I left around that time.
Overall, I think Elia felt less crowded (though neither was too crowded as it was the end of the season) and spacious. Elia had a more mixed crowd whereas Paradise early in the day felt more like families or couples, though it could have been the part of the beach I plopped myself at. To get to the beaches you can rent a car or scooter, take a taxi (though it will be expensive), or just take the local bus with for around 2 euros each way, is pretty cheap. Paradise has more buses in the schedule than Elia which is less frequent. You can also connect among several beaches by taking a caique or boat. That may be a good way to sample different beaches in one day.
The Little Venice area of the Chora is one of the more popular parts of town. There is everything there from shops, to the emblematic Paraportiani church, to clubs/bars/restaurants. In the places facing the water (Katerina’s and Kastro, for example), you have great views of the windmills and of sunset.
View from Little Venice of the windmills
I lounged a couple of afternoons sipping mojitos, taking pictures, and just admiring the vistas. In that area I found two places that I enjoyed eating at. One was Nikos Taverna. I don’t know if the food qualifies as extraordinary but sitting at the plaza above the restaurant level makes for great people watching without feeling crowded in. I enjoyed my time sitting there watching life.
The other place, which was recommended by an American couple I met in the ferry going to Delos, was Kounelas. It is a phenomenal place hidden away between Little Venice and the waterfront of the Chora itself. This place is a must if you like fish/seafood.
The catch of the day at Kounelas
They make you walk from your table downstairs to the kitchen where they open several refrigerated drawers with the latest catch be them monster shrimp or sea bass. Then they grill it for you. I sat at the top of the external staircase which afforded me views of all the passers-by downstairs in the alley. It was a slightly windy night which was perfect for me so I sat contentedly there through and after my meal!
View from my table at Kounelas
So all that eating definitely required walking it off so I did that usually after dinner not only with the walk to my hotel but also just meandering in the Chora. One who is never afraid to get lost, like me, is at home there! However, how bad can getting lost be in this place where either you hit the water on a couple of sides or head up the hill? Not hard to eventually get your bearings!
I mentioned the sunsets earlier and they are pretty spectacular though I guess that is true of anywhere with a clear view of the west. In Mykonos, I either watched them from my hotel’s terrace or from one of the bars in Little Venice where I got to look at the windmills in the changing light. We also enjoyed full-moon nights which made for a pretty sight on the walk back to the hotel.
Mykonos is an enchanting little island and I am glad I not only got to see it but got to see it slightly off-peak. As it was there were multiple cruise ships every day but it never felt too crowded for me. I can imagine the partying is louder and more crazy in July and August. By the time I got there, the winds were blowing strong and Paradise was announcing its close of the season party on 16 September. I found out most hotels and the like start shutting down so I guess it is not a place where Europeans go to escape northern Europe’s winter.
My sum-up of the visit is a positive one. Though traveling solo, I was never bored. There was plenty to draw my attention, to do, and to eat I actually would like to return sometime, try staying in different parts of the island. However, I would also like to explore other Greek isles. The problem is which and how much time can I take to do it!
Someone suggested on a blog I read that reading a blog about a place written by a local can be better for a visitor than a blog about the place written by a visitor. I agree that a local can give a unique perspective though I still like hearing a visitor’s perspective about a place. Regardless, I thought I’d give my hometown, Atlanta, a crack in my blog though these entries will not be about a trip for me. Well, it was the first time I got here as a teen in the 80s…
Atlanta Skyline 1984
Back then, Atlanta felt sleepy. Everything closed at 10PM including McDonalds. One or two shopping malls within my reach. Taking the subway (MARTA) to the Arts Center station and from there connect to a bus to get to Lenox Mall or Perimeter Mall. Boy, how things change: the subway now goes to those places and beyond. MARTA does not have a great metro network unfortunately due to small-mindedness and the high cost of digging into solid rock. But at least it does cover a good distance in the lines it does have. The best part was when they finally extended MARTA to the airport. Brilliant. But stay tuned, there is a project called the Beltine (www.beltline.org) which promises to add a circular route, intown, connecting at 5 places with the various MARTA lines. That long-term project will begin to impact how we rely on public transport, at least for those of us who live intown for whom the Beltline may be just a walk away.
Or that’s the hope in this car-loving city. Because if you come, I’d strongly recommend right now to rent a car. Else, you are stuck to downtown and the MARTA line or hard-to-hail taxis.
Downtown Points of Interest
Atlanta is a wonderful place to live but I would not place it in a top 5, perhaps even top 10, places to visit in the U.S. if you come from abroad (my fellow locals may kill me for saying that… or do I just want a good secret kept secret??). However, there is a lot of charm and things to discover in and around the city for those who can forgive it for not having the scale and worldliness of NYC or the beautiful natural setting of San Fran… Nightlife is pretty limited in downtown proper unless there are a few conventions concurrently taking place. But I define downtown as a very small part of the city. A few blocks away begin neat parts of the city!
Despite all that, it has some cools to see and do.
In this part of town, you must definitely see the Aquarium – an impressive colossus best seend during a weekday (www.georgiaaquarium.org). Right next to it is the new Coca-Cola Museum (www.worldofcoca-cola.com) (true Atlantans know to put the dash between Coca and Cola!). I haven’t seen the new one but the old one was on the fascinating side so this must be too. CNN is located on the opposite end of Centennial Olympic Park and its tour can be interesting. Finally, the MLK Memorial is on the opposite end of downtown and an important historical site (http://www.nps.gov/malu/index.htm). Underground Atlanta unfortunately became a massive souvenir shop SLASH smaller crime center so it is hard to recommend except you can see what are old buildings for Atlanta and imagine how it used to be end of 19th century which is of some value.
Oh, one more thing. If you like a good view, go up to the rooftop bar at the Westin Peachtree for a phenomenal set of views of the city. But no need to walk around, just plop down, have a drink and the place will rotate for you. ‘Cause that’s how we roll.
Just Outside Downtown and Beyond but Still in the City
Just outside of downtown, a few gems to check out.
- First, the Fox Theater dating from the 1920s has really interesting architecture (this is not where “Gone with the Wind” had its premiere; that theater is now the site of the Georgia-Pacific skyscraper in downtown right across from where Margaret Mitchell, the author, was struck by a bus leading to her eventual death…).
- Second, the Oakland Cemetery (http://www.oaklandcemetery.com/). One of the oldest places in town and with some famous people buried there (e.g., Bobby Jones). The Jewish sector of the cemetery speaks to the long-standing presence in the city of the Jewish community and has some of the most interesting tombstones. Go and walk about. And bring your camera for some photo opps within the cemetery and of the downtown skyline, one of my favorite places to photograph it! Also, it seems to put on a good tour during Halloween but I haven’t been to it…
- Third: Piedmont Park, our Central Park (or is Central Park NYC’s Piedmont Park?). Expansive, with great views of the Midtown skyline, and plenty of people watching to do as you relax in this urban oasis.
- Fourth: the Inman Park neighborhood. What used to be the suburbs in the 1910s, where the original owners of Coca-Cola (after the druggist who developed the formula) lived, and site of some beautiful turn of the century homes (19th to 20th turn of the century!). As old as Atlanta gets for the most part and especially fun in April when a tour of homes is held.
- Fifth: The Fernbank Museum of Natural History (www.fernbankmuseum.org) in the beautiful neighborhood around Ponce de Leon Ave. with its exhibits and IMAX museum. Granted, just about every city has one but it can be a nice break plus if you drive around the neighborhood you will see something a lot prettier than downtown!
- Sixth: Get lost in the neighborhoods just east and west of I-75, inside the perimeter (I-285, the ring road around the city) and north of the Chattahooche River. You WILL get lost without a GPS or map. But the houses go from impressive to almost Versailles itself. Not a piece of Atlanta people get to see or understand when just coming for a convention and a MANDATORY part of the tour I give friends and family when they come. These neighborhoods are part of Buckhead and Vinings but very different than Buckhead as you may know it by Peachtree Street.
- Seventh: Shoot the Hootch! Or, get on a raft and go down river down the Chattahoochee River. A typical summer outing for me when I was in college and right after but fun for families. The river is pretty mild – but wear a lot of sunscreen!
If you have children and all this sounds too adult, the Children’s Museum (www.childrensmuseum.org) right near the Aquarium could give the kiddos a good target place. So mix the Aquarium and this museum (which is very much about hands-on activities and perfect for kids up to 7 years old) in on your schedule for the kids’ sake!
What Else Can You Tell Us, You Ask, about Things not in but Near Atlanta?
- Stone Mountain Park (about 20-25 mins away) has what is supposed to be the single largest mountain of granite. This mountain is walkable up the side or one can go up using a cable car. Back in the 1930s a giant, football field-sized carving of Confederate heroes was made on the flatter side of the mountain and, whether you like the people depicted or not, it is something to see. In summertime, a laser show takes places at night against it that is worth watching. Stone Mountain, among many other attractions, features a model of a real life Southern plantation. They moved structures from several plantations around the state to depict life on a plantation. It is very much worth seeing.
- For fun in the park, Six Flags over Georgia west of the city is ideal. I am not much for this type of parks but it is good if you like ‘em!
- Callaway Gardens south of the city offers very nice, obvious, gardens but also things like butterfly exhibits and golf. It is a family resort for those seeking that type of environment. (www.callawaygardens.com)
- North of the city, you can head up the North Georgia mountains where towns like Dahlonega & Blairsville offer a great view into the south and mountain living (a lot of retirees from other states landing up there! it is a choice spot for retirement in the corner of North Carolina, Tennesee and Georgia, 2 hrs away from Atlanta’s airport and less from Chattanooga). Helen, GA is a pseudo-German town with fun Oktoberfest though a little cheesy overall for me.
- Though I haven’t been to it, I have heard good things about Sweetwater Creek Park (http://gastateparks.org/info/sweetwater/) which sounds like nature’s oasis within a stone’s throw of the city. Just like that you will find fascinating gems of nature and history (another example, the town of Madison about an hour plus east of Atlanta).
- About an hour north on I-75, there is a true jewel of a museum. It was quite unexpected when I heard about it and I was very impressed with its modernity, and the quality and contents of this museum given the setting in Cartersville, GA: The Booth Western Art Museum (http://www.boothmuseum.org/)
- Further north and getting close to the Tennessee state line are Rock City and Ruby Falls. Pretty neat places to explore and fun for the kids.
Rock city (photo from http://roadsidegeorgia.com/site/rockcity)
Within the metro area, going to towns like Decatur with its diverse scene and great places to eat and Marietta with its old style town square and shops are great places to discover on your own.
Packaging It All Up
It is all fine and good to list all the things that can be done but how to package it and get it organized for execution? Well, I can provide a strawman of how I would package up all the things to see and do. Maybe a topic for a future blog if that is of interest!
What About Food?
In a later installment, I will discuss food and try to identify places near the stuff I have mentioned here so you can plan. This will be my favorite section for sure! But I must do LOTS OF research so it may be awhile
Other thoughts on things to do in Atlanta? There is plenty more especially right outside the city. Pipe in and help inform others on your recommendations!