Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Why Canada?

Collingwood, Ontario, Canada

When people started talking about their fall break plans, I was so excited to tell them about our upcoming trip to Canada.  Most of them asked this question:  Why Canada?  Almost everyone we knew were making that annual trek to Orlando, Florida and the famous mouse.  So, why in the world would anyone want to go north?  What could be so intriguing way up there?  What is there to do in Canada?

Oh, people, if you only knew!

Canada, during any time of year, is absolutely breath-taking. The drive alone is worthy of a visit--sweeping vistas of farms and forests, foaming and granite-filled beaches along those super lakes, majestic mountains--I could keep going but trying to pinpoint only ONE thing to love about Canada is almost impossible.  Located within 12 hours of Louisville, Kentucky, it is more accessible than Florida and has a much more beautiful drive.  Ontario is the closest to where we lived and is the most populous Canadian province.  It is widely-known for the winter skiing, but it is an amazing trip during anytime of the year.  This time, we visited in the fall and I don't think there could have been a better place to experience the fall foliage.  Yes, I did say experience it, not just SEE it.  Canada is all about the experience of being outside and enjoying nature, rather than driving by and taking pictures. 

I highly recommend taking the scenic route once you come out of Detroit.  Take the road less traveled and you will have memories to last you the rest of your life.  The Georgian Bay is along Lake Huron and will take you all the way to our location, Collingwood.  And, on the way back, go another scenic route and hit Niagara Falls.  It will only add about 3 hours to your trip and will be well worth it.  It is absolutely the best fall vacation we have ever experienced!  If you've never travelled internationally, start with Canada. You won't miss that mouse one bit.

Things to See and Do:

  • The Best View.   The best view is definitely to had at Scenic Caves.  Don't picture those underground caves here in the US.  These caves are all outside and are more like collapsed rock formations you can walk through.  They are no less beautiful and eerie than the US counterparts, though.  This is more of an adventure park than just a tourist attraction.  There are so many things to do here for the whole family--ziplining, hiking, and a suspension bridge that has the best views you will ever see.  Thunderbird Twin Zipline was absolutely amazing and gave 'thrilling' a whole new meaning.  To get to the tower, you had to climb to the top of the small mountain and then climb another two to three stories.  From there, it is a self-guided rush to the bottom, racing a partner the whole way.  The EcoAdventure Tour and Treetop Canopy Walk was my favorite activity on the whole vacation and something I had never done before.  Planks and boards are suspended in the forest at Scenic Caves among sixteen trees and you are harnessed in, walking the planks.  It was the best way to see that fall foliage up close and personal.  The end is a short zip-line to the bottom and the guides let you hang upside down, go backwards or both!  After that, it is a short ride to the bottom of the mountain once again.  For more information, visit Scenic Caves Nature Adventures.
  • The Top of the World. If the view from Scenic Caves didn't tickle your fancy, don't despair.  Blue Mountain has just what you are looking for.  Blue Mountain Resort is world-class, world-renowned resort for skiing and golf.  If neither of those things are your cup of tea, there is also putt-putt, a mountain coaster (a personally guided roller coaster down the mountain), and shopping in an Alpine village with dozens of shops and unique restaurants.  Still not hooked?  Then, buy a ticket for the Gondola to the top of the mountain and take a Segway tour!  Zipping through cross-country trails on a Segway is a whole new way to experience the fall leaves.  This tour is located at the top of the mountain and the view is stunning.  For more information, visit Blue Mountain Resort.
  • Wined and Dined.  There are two wineries in the area and both are worth a visit.  Both are very different in both taste and ambiance. Georgian Hills Vineyards is located down gorgeous, winding country roads.  We were fortunate to be there during the apple harvest and fruit-laden trees were down every road.  Farmer's markets, stands and local festivals made it a fun time to visit this winery.  They do have a tasting room and the drive takes you right past the vines used to make the wines.  For more information, visit Georgian Hills Vineyards.  A completely different experience, and in a completely different direction, is Coffin Ridge Winery.  Coffin Ridge is a boutique winery and one of the most unique I have ever been to. Their tasting room is beautiful and be sure to check out the bathroom while you're there, even if you don't need to go!  The deep red walls and black toilet makes you feel like you've landed in Hades' house.  While you're sitting in there, you can also watch an episode or two of The Addams Family!  This is no shtick winery, though.  They have delicious wines and the view off the back deck was the most beautiful of any winery we've ever visited.  (That's a lot, folks!)  For more information, visit Coffin Ridge Boutique Winery.
Places to Eat:
  • If wings are your thing, look no further than Beaver & Bulldog Sports Pub & Wingery.  They have over twenty varieties of wings from the mundane BBQ and Jasmine to the more exciting Exorcism and Suicide.  While you're there, try the side dish Canada is known for, the poutine.  It is french fries with cheese curds topped with hot gravy.  Incredible food and fun!  For more information, visit Beaver & Bulldog Sports Pub & Wingery.
  • A landmark of Collingwood is The Alphorn Restaurant, a Swiss restaurant popular with skiers and winter tourists.  The Alphorn is open all year, though, so don't wait to try it out.  The weinerschnitzel is absolutely amazing and they offer different variations from the traditional, like smothered in mushroom gravy or with melted Swiss cheese on top.  The portions are big enough for a giant, so be warned!  Another really interesting taste was the raclette, an appetizer than was melted cheese with potatoes, pickles and pickled onions.  Sounds crazy?  It is a new favorite of mine!  Everything we ordered was so good, from the noodles to the salad.  For more information, visit The Alphorn Restaurant.
  • Want the convenience and ambiance of an old-fashioned pub and the cuisine of a fine restaurant?  Look no further than The Dam Pub Gastro Pub and Whisky Bar in Thornbury.  The Dam Pub has over 675 different kinds of whisky.  Patrons can sample flights or single nips of anything on that vast menu.  If you don't know what to order, the wait staff is very knowledgeable and can point you to some unique and tasty selection.  The drinks aren't the only fun side of this place, though.  The meal are prepared by a chef and lend to the Scottish side.  From bangers and mash to shepherd's pie, you'll feel ready to take on any rainy or winter day.  We had the Half Pounder sandwich--one-half pound of pure meat!  Delicious and sinful!  All this while traditional Scottish music plays in the background and shelves of old books darken the walls.  Cozy, and perfect.  For more information, visit The Dam Pub.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Midwestern Fun

Columbus, Ohio

You don't always have to travel to exotic locales for a good time.  And, huge cities like Chicago can sometimes feel just too big to take in when you've only got a short time to travel.  Don't discount smaller cities like Columbus, Ohio.  Located in a very centralized location, this spot has all the fun of a bigger city with a small-town feel.  If you have a weekend to spend, look no further.  Columbus, the second largest city in Ohio, feels much smaller and it doesn't take long to get a feel for things.  Home to Ohio State University and the state's capital, Columbus also has some delicious eats, some great museums and some fantastic shopping. The skyline is beautiful and a meandering river walk downtown makes this a fun spot.  The outer suburbs have a lot to offer as well.  Did I say a weekend to see it all?  Now that I think about, a full month probably wouldn't be enough time to see all that Columbus has to offer!

Things to See and Do:

  • Franklin Park Conservatory:  No trip to Columbus is complete without stopping here.  This Columbus icon has been a hallmark of the city since 1895.  If you're thinking 'conservatory' means just a bunch of're right.  But, you couldn't be more wrong.  Franklin Park has a large collection of plants inside and beautiful gardens outside.  A visitor could spend an entire afternoon just wandering around looking at everything.  However, if you're the kind to stop and smell the roses, give yourself more than an afternoon.  Franklin Park also has a butterfly exhibit where you can stand and be surrounded by the light flutterings of wings, from butterflies found all around the world.  Truly, a unique experience!  Franklin Park is also home to the largest collection of Dale Chihuly art found in any conservatory in America.  If you're planning on staying for the day, make sure to eat lunch at the Garden Cafe.  The sandwiches and entrees feature fresh herbs and there can be no more beautiful surroundings.  For more information, visit Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.
  • Topiary Garden in Old Deaf School Park:  This garden feature has to be seen to be believed and is a treat for both garden-lovers and art-lovers.  The Old Deaf School Park is an oasis located downtown and is a perfect spot for an afternoon picnic or a stroll.  This 7-acre park is home to more than 220 trees and has a Topiary Garden modeled after the 1887 painting Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat.  Columbus native James Mason reinterpreted the painting in topiary and truly made the canvas turn into a 3D, 360-degree landscape miracle.  The twelve-foot tall figures all made of different varieties of yew and a bronze example of the painting is on display so you can visualize exactly what the landscaper was trying to portray.  For more information, visit Topiary Park
  • If you are a literary lover, then you'll know that Columbus was the home to author James Thurber and the James Thurber House is a must see.  Thurber House is on the outskirts of Ohio State University campus and is on the National Registry of Historic Places.  The house is a living museum and is kept much of the way it would have looked when Thurber was living there as a young boy.  The upstairs, though, has offices in some of the rooms and, rather than detract from the ambiance, seeing people working on literary activities in the bedrooms seemed too delightful to me.  I would imagine Thurber would have approved.  The tour is free is you guide yourself and $4 for a tour guide.  What makes the home so unique is its nightlife!  During the summer, the House hosts author nights where listeners can bring a lawn chair or a blanket and eat a catered dinner while listening to authors read from their works.  The House also hosts a resident author, who lives on the top floor.  The House is truly a living museum where children, aspiring writers and lovers of literature can flock and enjoy activities year round.  For more information, visit Thurber House.
  • Columbus practically drips with culture and fun.  One place that was full of both was the Columbus Museum of Art.  From my old favorites like Cezanne, Gaugin and Monet to modern photography that is just too difficult to describe, this museum has a little bit of everything.  When I went, there was a special exhibition of European puppetry.  While I would never have considered myself a puppet fan, I was entranced by the exhibition which was just as much an antique show as pieces of art.  There are revolving exhibits constantly.  And, the docents there are amazing.  They are so friendly and knowledgeable and in practically every room.  There are also interactive exhibits which were so fun and an entire children's area where art is being created and touched and talked about.  For more information, visit Columbus Museum of Art.
  • No trip to Columbus is complete without walking through the German part of the city, commonly known as German Village.  While the food is amazing, my favorite store was The Book Loft of German Village.  "Loft" makes it sound kind of small and quaint.  Think again!  The independent bookstore is located within several Civil War-era buildings that houses more than 30 rooms  of books, all with different themes.  For a book girl like me, it was pure heaven and definitely my idea of a great thing to do.  I spent hours in there, just wandering around looking at old and new books, many of which are hard to find anywhere else.  For more information, visit The Book Loft of German Village.

Places to Eat:

  • I try very hard to stay away from chain stores when I travel.  Mom and Pops make food way better than a chain where everything usually just tastes the same as another chain.  Sometimes, though, I make exceptions if the food is that good.  At Cantina Laredo, the food IS that good.  And, so is the atmosphere.  The restaurant is beautiful and conveniently located at Polaris Mall.  What really sets is apart is the wait staff.  The food servers are so friendly.  One even sat down at our table for about 15 minutes, telling us funny stories about living in Mexico and then moving to Columbus where his first job was to work a snow shovel.  My favorite part, besides the margaritas, was the guacamole which is prepared right at your table.  For more information, visit Cantina Laredo.
  • Schmidt's Restaurant and Banquet Haus has been around a long time--through 5 family generations and open since 1886.  With all that time on their hands, they weren't just out enjoying life.  Oh, no!  They were in the kitchen perfecting the art of German cuisine.  Located in German Village, this Columbus institution is a must do.  Everything we ate was amazing--the pretzel nuggets, the sauerkraut-bratwurst balls, the schnitzel, the strudel.  I could keep going on and on--but I won't because then you'll know how much I ate!  Embarrassing!  Plan enough time for a long walk around town after the meal.  You can't escape without putting on a pound or two.  But, it's so worth it.  For more information, visit Schmidt's Restaurant and Banquet Haus.
  • To continue the gastric tour, we next stopped at an Italian restaurant in nearby Worthingotn, Ohio, which had been strongly recommended by some friends.  Open since 1978, VillaNova is a truly authentic Italian meal.  The inside of the place is something to see--clocks and collections and assortments of stuff (no better word to describe it) line every inch of wall space.  As soon as the food comes out, though, you'll forget all about what's hanging on the wall and just concentrate on what's sitting at the table.  We were lucky enough to be there on the night the special was the 'Tour of Italy'.  We had fried cheese ravioli, lasagna, spaghetti, meatballs and the gnocchi.  It was so good, every last bite.  Is it wrong of me to say I feel a little sad because I couldn't try EVERYTHING on the menu?  This restaurant was worth the drive to Columbus alone.  For more information, visit VillaNova Ristorante Pizza Bar.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Should Be at The Top of Your Bucket List

Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico

When I tell people our next vacation will be to some location in Mexico, they invariably ask, "Is it safe?"  I have to admit I have no idea where this strange idea that Mexico is full of crime and danger comes from.  Sure, I've heard stories of Mexican cartels, but I hazard a guess that strolling down any street in downtown Los Angeles or New York or New Orleans would be just as risky.  I have never once felt in danger.  Everywhere you look, there are police cars and police stationed in tourist areas with machine guns.  Me, I like having police with machine guns.  If you don't feel safe with that, nothing will make you feel safe!

Regardless, tourism ranks as the top (legal) money-producing enterprise in Mexico, so tourists are treated like royalty.  Jalisco is no exception.  Puerto Vallarta was one of the stops on the old TV show The Love Boat, for good reason.  It is beautiful and exotic and breath-taking.  A tropical paradise in a busy city would be the best way to describe it.  If that doesn't convince you, consider that Jalisco is the birthplace of tequila and it is the only place where tequila can be produced.  If neither of those things convince you to visit, then check out the rest of the blog and the the pictures.  You will soon see why this amazing destination needs to be at the top of any 'bucket list'.

Things to See and Do:
  • By Sea:  Snorkeling at Marietas Islands.  This chain of islands is about one hour away from Puerto Vallarta and the boat trip alone is worth it.  On the way, we saw scads of various sea birds, dolphins that practically jumped onto the deck of our boat, and an entire school of manta rays.  In the winter months, the area is well-known for whale watching and I have no doubt it would be quite an adventure.  We were fortunately there during jellyfish hatching time, and seeing these tiny pink and clear creatures surrounding the boat was a fantasy that Walt Disney could only dream about.  So beautiful!  However, the truly unbelievable sight was the secluded beach at Marietas.  To get to it, you have to snorkel through a water tube.  It was rough swimming and seemed to take forever, but once you get inside, the trip is well worth it.  The islands were once used by the Mexican government as target practice and the leftover damage is now a beach that is inside one of these craters, completely surrounded and only accessible by water.  There is also a small grotto inside that you can crawl to.  From there, we went to Los Arcos that had the best snorkeling we have ever done--and we have snorkeled in most of the Caribbean!  Jellyfish, octopus, 'Nemo' fish--the two hours felt like ten minutes.  We used the local company Vallarta Sol and were given breakfast, lunch, a snack and an open bar.  The staff were amazing and seemed to have a heart for conservation.  There are only a couple of touring companies even allowed to do this tour so plan far in advance.  For more information, visit Vallarta Sol.
  • By Land:  Four-wheeling the Sierra Madre Mountains.  The Sierra Madre Mountains is a group of mountains that extend far into Mexico.  An ATV tour is really the only way to see much of it as it would be inaccessible by regular car.  Tours in the area can be individually on an ATV or in a group with a dune buggy.  The tours last for hours and most of that time is spent traveling through rugged trails straight up into the mountains.  Our tour left from the middle of the city in Puerto Vallarta and we got to drive through back roads of the city and see what Puerto Vallarta is really like, not just the glittering touristy areas.  It was stark and beautiful and heart-breaking with poverty unlike anything we've seen anywhere else.  Our tour took us to a restaurant on top of a mountain with a layover that allowed us to eat some local fare, swim in the river and do a tequila tasting.  The guides were completely focused on our safety, our comfort and our fun. An amazing adventure!  For more information, visit Wild Treks Adventures.
  • By Air:  Ziplining the tropical forest.  The Sierra Madre Mountains is a tropical forest, not a tropical jungle but the foliage and fauna have to be seen to be believed.  The Canopy El Eden forest is home to the most intense, most extreme zip lining I've ever done.  Considering I've zip lined Fremont Street in Vegas and flung myself off the tallest zip line structure in America, that's quite a statement.  Canopy El Eden is the location where Arnold Schwarzenegger's movie Predator was filmed and you can walk in his footsteps and hike those same mountains.  There are over 12 lines that criss-cross the site and hiking up the mountain is very strenuous, but the ride down is completely worth it.  The guides seem to be more monkeys than men, zipping through the trees as if they were born to it and making it look so easy!  When you're finished, end the day at The Eden restaurant sampling authentic Mexican fare and diving into the Mislamoya River, with a convenient rope swing leaving right from the restaurant.  For more information, visit Canopy El Eden.
Places to Eat:
  • I'm going to cheat and recommend both a 'Thing To Do' and a 'Place To Eat' as one in the same.  While in Puerto Vallarta, you must take a trip to Las Caletas.  By day, it is a tropical paradise and private beach.  By night, it transforms into a Mayan fantasy called Rhythms of the Night.   You can only get to the location via a long boat ride but every minute is worth it.  As you pull up at the beach, you are greeted by costumed performers who lead you to the base of a temple/pyramid that is the scene for an incredible show.  The performance showcases traditional dance and music.  The costumes, the dancing--it was all so amazing that I felt like a kid on Christmas morning with my mouth hanging open.  The show ends right at dusk and you then wander down to the beach where tables are set up along the shore.  An authentic Mexican buffet awaits you with plenty of 'American' food for those who might be tired of salsa and guacamole.  There are as many courses as you want to eat and libations are poured liberally.  When you're finished, you are free to walk around the beach.  Each twist and turn of the trail is more amazing than the last and it seems but an instant until you hear the bells calling you back to the boat.  A once in a lifetime experience!  For more information, visit Vallarta Adventures.
  • The Best View in Town.  If you like seafood, you'll have to head inland at Puerto Vallarta.  The Happy Lobster (La Langosta Feliz) has some amazing fresh fish and the best view of the tropical forest you will find.  The entire restaurant is open air with no walls and sitting on the second floor feels just like you're eating in the treetops.  The food was so good and they had the biggest prawns I have ever seen in my life.  Everyone at the table got something different and it would be hard to say what was the best!  What made the place so much fun though is that it was away from the usual tourist streets.  It's on a little side street just outside of town and all the food was authentic.  Most of the people there were locals.  No website but to make reservations, call 322-223-13-09 .
  • Does recommending an Italian restaurant in Mexico seem odd to you?  Me, too, and yet........the youngsters rebelled at eating Mexican cuisine for every meal.  We decided to try La Terrazza di Roma for two other reasons:  #1--its location.  It is located in the Marina area right on the water.  Watching the yachts and boats while eating on a pier overlooking the water was just too much fun.  The open air pier had an air of romance about it.  We were there for breakfast but I can imagine at night, with candlelight, it would be quite lovely.  Reason #2--Well, the pier overlooking the water.  There are lots of restaurants on the Marina and we did try another one but I am a sucker for something fun.  This place was fun.  While we were there, some locals followed an alligator underneath the pier and I have some amazing photos of that.  Alligators under our seats?  Who knew they were even in Mexico?  Maybe they were crocodiles, I don't know.  And, the food? Quite good!  No website, but for reservations or for questions, call (322) 221-0560.

Monday, May 6, 2013

A Guys and Girls Weekend

When most people think of Kentucky, perhaps that famous horse race comes to mind or maybe those long wooden bats.  However, the real Kentucky is waiting past the edges of Louisville, her famous honorary-capital.  A country road in any direction will bring you in touch with the most fascinating history, the nicest people and the best eats you will ever encounter. 

Taylorsville, Kentucky sits just one county away from Louisville, a gentle afternoon's ride, and while it will never be as famous as its nearest neighbor, it embodies the best of the Bluegrass state.  Taylorsville Lake and Taylorsville Lake State Park are the biggest draw to the area in the summer, with fishing and boating and outdoor sporting causing the area to swell with tourists.  However, there are other delightful features nearby and a trip in any season would be full of fun.

Things to See and Do for Guys (the Bourbon) and for Girls (the Wine):
  • Bardstown, Kentucky is only a short drive away and whatever you do, take the long winding road.  There is nothing quite like the view--acres of achingly-green grass framed by white picket and ancient stone fences, winding roads through towns that time has surely forgotten, pre-Civil War mansions still keeping families warm.  Idyllic and fantastic!  Bardstown has enough for an entire blog and I'm already featured some of it in other postings but you can't get it in all at one time.  Perhaps, like the bourbon it's known for, it was meant to be sipped slowly over time.  Regardless, every trip should start at Heaven Hill Distillery and the Bourbon Heritage Center.  The center is part museum/part working factor.  After a short walk through a mini-museum, guests are taken into a cinema where the history of Kentucky bourbon is explained.  Then, for those dedicated enough to take the 'Deluxe' tour, a short walk across the grounds lets you wander into those statuesque barns holding most of the world's inventory.  It's a bit breath-taking, not only for the size and quantity but also for the stark beauty (and the fumes!).  After a lengthy and informative tour, everyone gets to end their day at the tasting room, which is inside what has to be the world's largest barrel.  For more information, contact Heaven Hill Distilleries.
  • Each distillery is just a little different, with some unique piece of fame or history to impart on its guest.  Barton's 1792 is a newer distillery, at least as far as bourbons go!  It began operating in 1897 but has only been hosting tours for the last couple of years.  If you want the specifics of EXACTLY how that bourbon concoction is made, this is the tour to take.  While the tour isn't long or cover much ground, I learned more about the process than I was able to keep in my brain.  At the end, there is the complimentary tasting--with a little bonus, a Louisville made bourbon ball.  That was my favorite taste of the day.  And, on exiting, don't forget to stop and have your picture made with the 'World's Largest Bourbon Barrel'.  For more information, visit Barton 1792 Distillery.
  • The wineries in town don't offer quite the historical punch, but the taste is so much sweeter!  Our first stop was at Forest Edge Winery in nearby Shepherdsville.  The winery is so big and beautiful, large enough for a wedding reception.  The tasting bar is expansive as is their wine list.  From sweets to dry, this winery had it all.  For more information, visit Forest Edge Winery.
  • We ended the day at Chuckleberry Farm and Winery, one of the most unique wineries I have ever been to.  I am a sweet wine drinker and do love to dabble in the fruit wines so this place was heaven for me!  Every wine they offer is some sort of fruit wine--from apple and cherry to a flavor I have never tasted in wine before-banana!  The tasting is extensive and we must have tried over 10 wines on the list before calling it a day.  At the end, we were given a slushy wine treat and a free glass.  This isn't a winery for those who like dry wines but it sure was a lot of fun.  For more information, visit Chuckleberry Farm & Winery.
  • One cannot travel by backroads all the time and the interstates do have a few treasures.  One of those is Talon Winery in Shelbyville, Kentucky.  The winery has another location in Lexington as well.  The tasting room and bar is truly remarkable and while we haven't been, I hear the live music on Saturday nights is something worth making that drive for.  Regardless of the live music, the wine is enough for the time and trouble!  The bottle and labels are gorgeous and this winery has mostly drys and semi-drys.  Needless to say, we came back with the car loaded full!  For more information, visit Talon Winery and Vineyards.
Man Cannot Live By Bourbon and Wine Alone.  We also had to eat:

  • If you're looking for ambiance and sophistication, this place ain't it.  If you're looking for some delicious vittles and some Kentucky charm, then look no farther than Lynda's Grill in downtown Taylorsville.  It would be smart to get there for breakfast extra early or extra late to avoid the hunters and get a seat.  There's only around 10 chairs in the whole place and if someone else is looking at the one menu, you'll be plumb out of luck.  There is a drive-up menu outside but it just says 'breakfast' and if you don't know what a Kentucky breakfast entails, you might be thinking of danish and pastries.  Won't find that here.  No, here you get home-grilled country ham, warm biscuits and gravy and sliced tomatoes--all for under $5.00.  The food was amazing and the the people so friendly.  For more information, check out their Facebook page at Lynda's Grill.
  • If you're looking for something a little more frou-frou, try The Tea Cup in downtown Taylorsville.  This cafe specializes in coffee and baked goods.  I had a Pina Colada muffin and it was just as good as you can imagine--so moist and coconutty.  They have a wide variety to take or you can stay and eat, plus they also do cafe-style sandwiches for lunch.  For more information, try their Facebook page at The Tea Cup.
  • When I am traveling (and most other times), I try to avoid chain restaurants like the plague.  But, now I'm going to recommend Hometown Pizza in Taylorsville, even though it is a chain for two reasons: is small chain that actually got its start in LaGrange, Kentucky so it's more like family; and, #2....the pizza is just that good.  I am a pizza-phile.  I love pizza and could literally eat it every night of the week.  As it is, I eat it once per week.  Hometown Pizza is my favorite pizza joint and I eat at one every time I find one nearby.  The atmosphere is so family friendly and it feels more like you're eating in a friend's kitchen than a restaurant.  And, the pizza? Divine.  There's no other words for it.  I'm sure they have other stuff on the menu but why bother when the pizza is this good?  To find a Hometown Pizza near you, visit Hometown Pizza.
  • Claudia Sanders Dinner House in Shelbyville is another jewel right on the interstate.  And, after eating there, I think I know one of the Colonel's secrets in his chicken--his wife's cooking!  I hate to be sexist but I have to admit I always wondered how the Colonel, a man, could have come up with such a Southern delight ast that chicken recipe.  After eating at his wife's dinner house, I have absolutely no doubt it was his wife's influence that has caused such a global phenomenon.  I don't even know how to describe food this good.  It was one of those moments where my husband and I both took a bite and then just looked at each other and said, "Wow".  When food is that good, you don't need many other words.  Their buffet is astounding and filled with every southern delicacy you can name.  Husband had the fried chicken and it was so good.  The biscuits were amazing; the mashed potatoes and gravy was amazing; the bean soup and ham salad was amazing.  Wow.  I cannot wait to go back.  There's enough on the menu to go back and try things for a lifetime.  For more information, check out Claudia Sanders Dinner House.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Fun In Every Season

It's hard to find a travel destination that has something different for every season.  Usually, locations are fun for summer swimming  or fun for winter snow or fun for fall colors, but rarely is a locale beautiful and enjoyable in every season.

The Outer Banks, North Carolina, or OBX, is one such location.  In the summer months, it is a premier destination for beach fun and all the best of summer memories.  Yet, just a few months later, the entire Banks transforms itself into a frosty winter wonderland and while you can't ski the slopes there, the majesty of the dunes will make you forget all about ski boots and trail runs.  When people ask me about my favorite location ever or the most beautiful location ever, the Outer Banks is alwasy in my top ten.

To be fair, I haven't been there in the fall or spring, but I imagine the beauty of the region still has much to offer for any tourist of any age.  Truly, the Outer Banks seems to have it all.  If you love water sports and sunny beaches, they have it.  If you love history and culture, they have it.  If you love forests and natural beauty, they have it.  Shopping?  Yup.  Honestly, I'd be hard-pressed to think of something the Banks doesn't have.

No matter when you go, the following establishments and events are must-do's:

  • Hit the slopes.  No, not the ski slopes, the sand dunes!  While you can't snow ski in OBX, you can sandboard!   Jockey's Ridge State Park is the tallest natural sand dune in the United States and one of the most beautiful sites I've ever seen.  When you walk into the dunes, it feels as if you are on a desert as large and long as the Sahara.  The undulating dunes seem to stretch for miles and that's after walking down almost 400 feet of boardwalk!  The flora and fauna are abundant and just cruising the dunes is pure fun.  Our daughters played hide and seek with us and loved just running up and down.  However, there is plenty to do at the park, should you wish to be more scheduled.  They have many nature walks and talks but the most amazing thing seemed to be the kite races that were underway.  If you're really adventuresome, grab a kite.  Or, maybe a really big kite and go hang-gliding.  So breathtaking to see!  For more information, visit Jockey's Ridge State Park.
  • Hit the air.  Everyone has heard of Orville and Wilbur Wright but did you know that brothers made their historic first flight at Jockey's Ridge State Park (which was just a big pile of sand back then)?  The Wright Brothers National Memorial will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about this momentous time in history.  You can hike to the actual launchpoint of that first successful flight and spend many hours in the Visitor's Center reading and experiencing all the failed ones.  The Center has many interactive displays and is really more of a musuem of the history of flight with an actual replica of the plane the brothers flew.  For more information, visit The Wright Brothers National Memorial.
  • Hit the trail.  North Carolina is one of very few states with a native population of wild horses.  When I say 'native', I just mean they were here before the US was a thought.  The horses are descendents of Spanish mustangs and roam free over a protected area of OBX.  Don't miss seeing these beauties in action.  And, by action, I mean standing around and grazing but it's still a sight not to be missed.  There are various tours you can take and most of them are open SUV which heightens the thrill.  On this trip, you will leave paved roads behind and wander sand streets until you spot one or two or a whole herd.   They are majestic and beautiful and worth the trip.  The small village of Currituck has a museum and takes donations to protect these state and national treasures.  For more information, visit.The Outer Banks of North Carolina:  Wild Horses.
  • Hit the lights.  You could spend several days driving the back roads of OBX and 'lighthousing' and I highly recommend you do just that.  For the history lover, there is nothing more majestic and peaceful than visiting these museums and imagining how a lighthouse keeper kept the fires burning for ships. (This area isn't called 'The Graveyard of the Atlantic' for nothing!). For the scenery-lover, the back roads are mile after mile of unspoiled wildnerness and the scenes where the lighthouses are set are truly breath-taking.  There are five in all and the encompass both the oldest in the country and the tallest in the country, including the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse which is known as 'America's Lighthouse'.  If you're picturing one in your head, it's probably this one.  They are very spread apart so plan for a full day.  You won't be sorry.  For more information, visit The Outer Banks of North Carolina:  The Lighthouses.
And, the food cannot be beat.  Be sure to try these places:

  • Try ducking donuts at Duck Donuts.  This place must be visited for two reasons:  #1  The donuts are truly incredible.  #2 The process to make the donut is a show in inself. I don't know what I was expecting when I walked in the door.  Perhaps a huge bakery with rows of donuts waiting for me in class cases?  What I got was a delicious donut hot off the press.  Every single donut is made while you wait.  So, get there really early or expect to wait in line a long time.  The choices are amazing....strawberry, coconut, maple, sprinkles, peanut butter--I could go on and on.  They have every topping and flavor you could imagine and some you couldn't.  We bought several dozen to feed a large family gathering.....and had to go back for more.  They also offer drinks and fun merchandise.  You will not find a better breakfast in the Banks.  Be sure to watch your donuts being made--I think it made them taste better.  For more information, visit Duck Donuts.
  • For an authentic Banks meal, not place can top The Black Pelican Oceanfront Restaurant. The restaurant is named after a legend of a ghost--the ghost of a black pelican!  The building was constructed in 1874 and is an old lifegaurding station and supposedly the Wright Brothers sent a famous telegraph from there announcing their first successful flight.  As if that history weren't amazing enough, when you eat here you can say you have eaten at a haunted restaurant.  There are many stories in the area of a black pelican that appears right before times of a great disaster, such as a hurricane.  The sighting of the pelican is meant to serve as a warning to the living.  While we, fortunately, did not see a black pelican, we did experience one of the best seafood meals I've ever had.  The fish is about as fresh as they come and is a true delight.  For more information, visit The Black Pelican Oceanfront Cafe.
  • Why come to an ocean location if you can't have at least one meal looking at the water?  In this case, the water isn't the Atlantic but the equally beautiful 'sound' side of the Banks.  Sunset Grille and Bar certainly lives up to its name so make sure to spend one evening watching the sun go down.  You will not be disappointed by the view or the food.  Sit outside, if possible.  The decking and long boardwalk are so gorgeous and really puts you in the mood.  The restaurant features most seafood and Carribbean fare and all of it was divine.  Everyone at the table got something different and, after trying them all, I couldn't decide what was better.  (Although I am still a little partial to the coconut shrimp.)  For more information, visit the Sunset Grille and Raw Bar.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Do As Much.....Or As Little As You Want

 This is one place you'll not find on a cruise stop.  Instead, you'll have to want to go there and stay.  Playa Del Carman, Mexico sits just right across a stretch of water from Cozumel but seemed a world away from the busy Mexican tourist destinations we've been to before.  Don't get me wrong--I love Cozumel!  The blue-green water, the warm ticklish breeze, the homemade guacamole so good it'll make you want to smack those other guacs back in the states.  But, Playa Del Carman is a true slacker's paradise.  A place to laze away the days with sun, snoozing and eating.  Or, more, if you're so inclined.

But, honestly, I wasn't.  I didn't feel the need to run from tourist trap to tourist trap.  I didn't want to rush anywhere and do anything.  It's almost as if I were hypnotized in some way.  I just wanted to sit on the beach and experience heaven. 

Perhaps it had something to do with my timing?  After all, it was December 2012 and about one week away from the Mayan prediciton of world doom.  I could tell on the trip to Playa (about 45 minutes away from Cancun), that this would be a different vacation because of all the..well, hippies.  There were lots and lots of hippies.  Hippies everywhere.  These were the real thing, too, with knee-length dreadlocks, bulging backpacks, and tie-dyed garments from head to toe.  Why so many?  I had to know. 

So, I asked.  I asked the hippie guy sharing our ride (right after he asked the bus driver to stop at a convenience store for some beer because he just couldn't wait one more second.  The driver stopped--another thing I love about Mexico--the complete focus on customer service.)  Me:  "So, what's up with all the hippies?  Why are there so many of you here?"  Hippie:  "There's a bluegrass/folk festival at Tulum.  We want to be here when it all goes down.  This is where all the positive energy of the universe is."  Me:  "Huh!  Interesting!"  (Technically, he had a few "man's" throw in, such as "We want to be here when it all goes down, man" but you get the idea.) 

What better place to be at the end of the world?  Those hippies are on to something.  My blog this month will focus mostly on the eating (which I did lots of) and not a lot on the adventure (unless you count eating as much as you can an adventure). 

To Do:

  • Get a massage on the beach.  Massages are big in Playa and masseuses are lined up to take your business for very inexpensive rates.  Our massage was $25 for the hour and it was one of the best hours of my life.  There is something so decadent about lying on a rooftop feeling the warm sun and soft breeze of the Mayan Riviera while getting a massage.  While there are many massage parlors, there are also masseuses who will come to your place.  There is even a massage parlor/hut right on the beach, literally just steps away from the water.  Our masseuse came to our location and was wonderful!  According to her business card, she does a variety of services such as shiatzu, reflexology, deep tissue, even manicures and pedicures.  While there, email her at or call 984-134-6072.
  • Do a tequila tasting.  Tasting tequila in Mexico is like tasting bourbon in Kentucky:  you just have to go the source for the best stuff.  Tequila is something I had only formerly considered as a margarita ingredient but my lesson in tequila really opened my eyes.  Tequila is actually made from the 'heart' of a plant that is similar to a yucca.  The saying is "the heart can be cooked" (which I personally think would make a great title for a paranormal romance novel but...I digress).  The process of making tequila is so interesting so educate yourself and then try the stuff.  I thought tequila came in just a few flavors but there are dozens and dozens of them.  While I won't go into too much detail, I will say that my favorite is 1921 Crema de Tequila.  It puts Bailey's to shame and your coffee will never be the same again.  Splurge on a bottle you can't buy here in the states--some of them are made my local villages/natives and really helps out the local economy.
  • Listen to a band with your feet in the sand.  Fusion Beach Hotel Bar and Grill, located at the end of 6 Calle, is more than a restaurant; it's an experience.  I recommend going at night, for dinner.  There is just something so relaxing about squatting in lawn chairs around a table by candlelight listening to some jams.  The night we went there was a Reggae band and a bellydancer--so fun!  The real treasure, though, was listening to the sounds of the surf under a sparkling sky with friends and laughter.  The food is pretty good, too.  For more information, visit Fusion Beach Hotel Bar and Grill.
  • For those of you who insist on doing something, there is plenty to do.  There are hourly ferries to Cozumel and surrounding islands.  There are jet ski and parasailing rentals.  There are deep-sea fishing tours.  There are Mayan ruins nearby.  I heard all that--personally, I didn't step off the beach or the main strip. 
To Eat:

  • For the friendliest service, try La Parilla Mexican Grill,  located at 5th Avenue and 8 Calle.  Every time we went, the entire staff went out of their way to make us smile and laugh and feel right at home.  When I say 'every time' we went, you can tell we went there a lot.  Every day for lunch.  Every.  Single. Day.  And, it wasn't just because of the great service.  First, La Parilla is the best spot in town for people-watching.  There is a rooftop and an open bar area and shaded tables right on the busiest street.  You can sit for hours and never see the same people twice.  Secondly, the margaritas are so good, you just might want to sit there for hours.  Delicioso!  Pair that with the tastiest chorizo queso I've ever had and this trumps as my favorite restaurant.  On our lunch night there, the manager gave me a calendar for being such a 'good customer'.  For more information, en espanol, visit La Parilla Mexican Grill.
  • In our quest to find the perfect margarita, we stunbled onto the best pico de gallo on Earth at Tropical Playa Del Carman, located at 5th Avenue and 8 Calle.  While I am always a fan of good pico, this stuff was addictive---which probably explains why we went back so many times!  Combine that with half-price happy hour and fabulous seating right on the street, and you can't beat Tropical for a great place to start your adventure in fine dining.  For more information, en espanol, visit Restaurante-Bar-Hotel Tropical Playa Del Carmen.
  • El Pirata.  Yep, a pirate bar!  Right on the beach!  This little place was too much fun.  When the sun and surf just gets to be too much to bear, take short stroll to El Pirata, located at 10 Calle, just keep walking until you hit the water.  Each table is a little grass hut and the seats at the bar are swings.  The margaritas are cold and the nachos have real steak.  Really, what else does one need in life?