Saturday, August 16, 2014

NYC in July, cont.

The famous Starry Night
On Wednesday, we were both flying out, but not until the afternoon. That meant we had some quality time to enjoy in the city on our last day.

We started with a delicious breakfast at Sarabeth's (Central Park South location). I'd eaten here on my last trip to NYC and really enjoyed it. Last time, I'd had the lemon ricotta pancakes. Anxious to sample something new, I chose the toasted coconut waffle on this occasion. Sweet, nutty, with a mango glaze, this dish was extremely filling and more like a dessert than breakfast. Atlee had the french toast, which she generously allowed me to try as well. Both were absolutely delicious! We enjoyed our breakfasts, Atlee sipping her four flowers juice while I downed my coffee in big, grateful gulps.

After eating, it was off to the Museum of Modern Art. I have to admit, I'm not much of a modern art fan. I often feel I'm being taken for a fool, just a *little* bit. But Atlee, who minored in art history, promised she'd talk me through anything I thought was bogus (so I wouldn't feel like such a chump), and in we went.

Wyeth's Christina's World
Much like the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the previous day, MoMA allows you to check your bags (and crutches) and check out free wheelchairs. So once again, we were able to wheel through the exhibits with ease. We started with the special exhibition on the work of Lygia Clark, a Brazilian whose work was very participatory. It was almost like performance art. She'd create these costumes or masks or installations, and then she'd have subjects put them on or interact with them and film it. So her art wasn't really complete until she immersed someone in it. (You could tell that half the folks in the videos were ragingly high, but that didn't make it any less interesting.)

We also strolled by plenty of Picassos, Pollocks, Kahlos and Warhols, in addition to spending a bit of time in front of Van Gogh's Starry Night, which I had never seen in person. One of my favorites from the day was Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World. Gorgeous detail, and not a limited or depressing portrayal, at all, of a girl with restricted physical abilities.

Shakespeare in the park
After enjoying the museum for the morning and early afternoon, Atlee hopped in a cab to get to the airport. I was catching a slightly later flight, so I made my way to Central Park. It was a lovely, sunny day, and not too hot. Even though I've spent significant time in Central Park South, there were still a few areas that I'd missed.

Passing by beautiful Bethesda Fountain, I made my way to the mall and literary walk. I strolled along, taking pictures of the statues, appraising the work of the street artists, and people watching. Before long, I found myself at Conservatory Water. I took a close look at the Hans Christian Andersen statue, watched children sail their boats in the water, and climbed up to commune with Alice and Wonderland for a bit.

Curiouser and curiouser near Conservatory Water
By this time, the clock was ticking on my departure, so I caught a quick cab back to the hotel, and then to the airport. My flights back home were blessedly on time (and I even ran into a friend on the final leg, from D.C. to Jackson), and I was back home with my sweeties by that evening.

I so, so love New York City. What an amazing town! Can't wait to come back!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

NYC in July, cont.

Charles James Collection at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sigh.
Tuesday morning found us cabbing it to Saint Ambroeus for breakfast. What a great little find! We were seated at an out-of-the-way table not too far from the door (just as I'd requested in my reservation). Our server whisked Atlee's crutches into a nearby nook for storage, and we got down to the business of breakfast! I chose the uova al tegamino con pancetta, two sunnyside up eggs with bacon, potatoes and toast. Delightful, and plenty to satisfy me. The food was delicious, service was quick, and the atmosphere of this place was warm and welcoming. This is not a cheap breakfast by any means, but it was yummy, charming and convenient to our next stop.

We'd decided to spend most of the day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Brian and I had visited here on our previous trip to New York City, and I remember nearly weeping when we left because I felt there was so much I'd missed! This trip provided an opportunity for me to swing back through this behemoth of a museum and catch some of the art I hadn't gotten to last time.

I loved her face.
The best part? The museum offers free wheelchairs that patrons can check out! So, we came in at the handicapped entrance, checked Atlee's crutches, and then checked out a wheelchair. We spent the rest of the morning (and the early part of the afternoon) wheeling around the museum to our hearts' content. Wonderful!

We started with one of their special exhibitions - a gorgeous collection of amazing dresses by Charles James. Atlee is an avid sewer and smocker, so she was particularly keen to check this out. And the minute I stepped into the exhibit space, so was I. Imagine dress after incredible dress, vivid colors and patterns, unbelievable architecture (full shaped skirts, whimsical bodices and collars, very structural work - all done in cloth), dramatically lit for display. Not only that, electronic equipment scanned the dresses as you watched accompanying screens, breaking down the pattern of the design and explaining all of the underpinnings that made the frock keep its fantastical shape. This was absolutely revolutionary for me. I don't know that I can look at a dress the same way, ever again.
One of the Vermeers I missed last time!

We also checked out some of the medieval art and one of the sculpture gardens. Then, we stopped in the on-site American Cafe for a light lunch. Afterwards, Atlee had a doctor's appointment to get to. I put her in a cab a spent some additional time at the museum. I checked out the Dutch/Flemish rooms (which had been closed on my previous visit), the armor, and the musical instruments.

By this time, my dogs were barking! And when I stepped outside the museum, I saw that it was pouring down rain! Luckily, I'd brought my umbrella. A little energetic waving landed me a cab, which deposited me, safe and dry, back at the Bentley.

Atlee's doctor's appointment ran long, so I relaxed that afternoon, showering and gussying up for the evening's entertainments. We met back up for dinner at Pigalle, a little brasserie that you often see advertised in Playbills. I'd discovered it on my last trip to NYC and loved it. I had a creamy bowl of porcini ravioli, followed by a bright apple tart. Full and happy, we only had to round the corner to arrive at our next destination.

Live theatre ROCKS!
Determined to catch at least ONE of this year's Tony winners while I was in town, so I'd booked us tickets in advance for A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. What a HOOT! Young Monty, upon the death of his mother, discovers that he's actually a member of the lordly Dysquith family. In fact, there are only some 8 living Dysquiths between him and an earldom. Learning that his poor mother was disowned and rejected by the family, leading to her sorrowful death, he decides to exact revenge on the family and move himself closer to a title in the process. An expertly-staged musical farce, this production had us rolling in the aisles! There was no weak link in the cast, but the clear star of the show is Jefferson Mays, who plays most of the members of the snobbish Dysquith family. Songs are hilarious and delivered with remarkable talent, personality and vocal control. There is a reason this show won the 2014 Tony Award for best musical. Not to be missed!!

After the show, we grabbed a cab back to the hotel and slept soundly.

More to come . . .

Sunday, August 10, 2014

NYC in July!

The Swan Lake bathroom.
Now, you know how I love New York City. I've been a few times now, both for work and for fun. When I go, I hit tourist destinations and haunt Broadway. It's my kinda town.

A few weeks ago, Atlee, a friend of mine, was visiting NYC for a few days for medical reasons. She was going to be in the city alone, and she asked if I'd like to tag along. It took me about half a second to agree! She was going up on a Monday, but I hopped up one day early to try and catch some extra shows. (I would have gone up TWO days early, but I had previous commitments that Saturday.)

I made it to the city on time, right around lunch. First off, I checked into my hotel - Bryant Park Hotel. I'd never stayed there before, but I booked it because it was located right on Bryant Park (which I love) and it got great reviews on TripAdvisor. (Plus, it's only a few blocks to the TKTS booth. Priorities, people.)

Breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien!
At check in, the incredibly friendly desk clerk notified me that I'd been upgraded to the board room suite. That meant that I had a gorgeous boardroom all to myself. (You know, for my bidness.) Past the board room (which I didn't use, by the way) was a very spacious bedroom and a HUGE bath. (Huge for NYC, anyway. I've been in hotels where you could barely turn around in the bathroom. I could've staged Swan Lake in mine.)

After check in, my stomach was rumbling. I hopped next door to Le Pain Quotidien and grabbed a quick lunch to go, decamping to a bistro table in the park. I chose a grilled chicken and mozzarella tartine and a summery raspberry lemonade. (Delicious, seasonal, and not too heavy!) As I enjoyed my lunch under the leaves, I chatted with park-goers at neighboring tables.

Probably my fave show of the trip!
After that, I made a beeline to the TKTS booth. I still had time to catch a Sunday matinee! I ended up scoring a center orchestra ticket for Once at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. I'd watched the movie, of course, with the rest of America. I'd also bought the movie soundtrack, so I knew and loved many of the songs. I made my way to the theatre with time to spare, so I stopped for a quick coffee and a piece of chocolate cake in a nearby Italian cafe. Then, it was into the theatre.

I am so, so glad that I saw this show. It's won a boatload of awards, and I totally understand why. The way it was adapted for the stage is brilliant, with a tight ensemble cast serving as chorus, band and a crew of lovable characters. The production does a brilliant job of showing how music crosses all of our boundaries and connects us all. Incredibly romantic and soulfully performed. Out of all the shows I saw while I was in NYC this trip, I think this one was my favorite. Just a beautiful, beautiful experience.

After the show, I had some dinner reservations at Tony's di Napoli, near Times Square. I'd heard it was great for fast, unpretentious Italian on a budget. I wasn't disappointed! I had a big plate of linguine with clams, washed down with a glass of wine and accompanied by big chunks of crusty bread. The place was completely packed! Though some parties were taking their time eating, the waiters were turning tables at an unbelievable pace for those with theatre tickets for later that night. The food was good, and there was plenty of it. I was in and out of there for about $35, including tip.

Mmmmm! Clam linguine at Tony's
After dinner, I didn't really have any plans. So, I ambled back to the TKTS booth to see what was on offer for Sunday night. I was surprised to find that several shows had Sunday night performances, and quite a few good tickets were still available. On a lark, I bought a front center ticket for Motown.

I ended up sitting on the third row with a few big groups of folks out to have a good time. What fun! We chatted before curtain and during intermission, and during the show, we clapped and hooted and sang along. The woman right in front of me, who I had of course befriended, got called up on stage to sing "Reach out and touch somebody's hand" with the show's Diana Ross! Big fun.

Two-tapping tunes
For me, standouts in the cast included Eric Lajuan Summers (who danced like a madman and brought incredible energy to every scene he was in; you just COULD NOT stop watching him), Krystal Joy Brown (who channeled Diana Ross like no one I have ever seen; she had it DOWN), and Charl Brown as Smokey Robinson. All of the songs were great, and some of them made you smile and laugh just hearing them performed live again. Costumes were a hoot, too!

Overall, though, I thought this show was a bit long. It was as though those who put the musical together wanted to include ALL of the big hits from Motown, and there were just too many. Add on a book that could be uneven at times, and it tended to drag. You could probably cut a good thirty minutes out of this show and have something that is paced better.

After Motown, I was beat! It was back to the hotel room and to bed!

The next morning, I awoke early and enjoyed pastry, fruit and coffee from Le Pain Quotidien in the park. Then, it was off to walk the High Line. I'd tried to make it by the High Line during previous trips to NYC, but I hadn't found the time. I figured this cool, cloudy morning alone was the perfect time to seek it out. I walked to the nearest point on the High Line from my hotel, then it was up, up, up for great views of NYC and NO TRAFFIC! I enjoyed the plantings, the public art, the convenient benches and the other visitors. Without having to wait for lights, you can make your way through NYC remarkably quickly on foot.

Public art on the High Line
I walked the High Line all the way to Chelsea Market, another spot I'd never been. I decided to take the stairs down and see what all the fuss was about. Oh. My. Goodness. Chelsea Market is a vast gourmet food mall. It's all inside, all air-conditioned, and practically designed for someone like me. There's even a book store and a kitchen goods store. I was in HEAVEN. I walked the length of it, stopping in the non-food shops to browse handmade goods, purses and books. I was also scoping out what food was on offer, because by this time, it was almost lunch. I was getting hungry, and I can't imagine a better place to get hungry than Chelsea Market.

I started with a beautiful cup of clam chowder at Lobster Place. It was a creamy concoction that I'm sure was half butter. You could practically spoon in on your cracker as a solid. It was divine. Feeling the need for more dairy, I had a fig jam and prairie breeze cheddar grilled cheese sandwich at Lucy's Whey. Crispy and thin and cheesy and sweet. And because I can't leave well enough alone, I finished up with a wonderful cone from L'Arte del Gelato, its cool, sweet smoothness slipping down my throat as I walked the High Line back to my hotel.

Gelato at Chelsea Market
After lunch, I cooled my heels for a bit (It had been a long morning of walking, after all!) before cutting through the park to check out the New York Public Library. Brian and I had come here on our last trip to NYC together (and I was really glad we had, because the Reading Room was closed this time), but I hadn't been back since. This trip, they had a really fun, inventive exhibit on children's literature called The ABC of It. It was a whimsical delight, and I was so glad I made time for a stop! I got to step into the pages of Good Night, Moon, watch Alice's neck stretch out in Wonderland and pretend I was Max from Where the Wild Things Are! And it was completely FREE!

By this time, Atlee had made it into town. A quick text confirmed she was all checked into what would be my second hotel of the trip, the Bentley Hotel, near the East River. I bid goodbye to those who'd become my fast friends at the Bryant Park Hotel. (Honestly, the next time I come to NYC, this is where I'm staying. Quiet, roomy, with a location that cannot be beat. AND it was very reasonably priced. A winner!) A quick cab ride later, I was settling in at the Bentley myself.

Since Monday is a largely dark night for Broadway, I'd prepared a special treat for the two of us. We started with an indulgent dinner at Bar Boulud. (Atlee is a big fan of Daniel Boulud's cooking. After eating at this place, so am I!) We started with a duck and fig pate, and then I moved on to a giant, steaming portion of mussels with a heaping side of fries. We sipped wine, laughed and enjoyed every sensory bite. Food was amazing. Service was polished and timely. Prices were spendy, but you felt so utterly satisfied, so full and happy, that you might as well have been at Disney World.
Atlee and I, enjoying Jazz at Lincoln Center

After dinner, we took a quick cab (Atlee was on crutches, the poor dear.) to Jazz at Lincoln Center to continue our evening. We had reservations to see the Moscow Jazz Orchestra, a rocking 16-piece band (with a singer who can blow the doors off Georgia On My Mind). This particular performance was taking place at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola, a very intimate venue that also serves food and drinks. We were seated at a small cafe table, and we ordered a few libations to help the music do its magic.

I really loved this venue. It was small and cozy, with gorgeous views of the NYC skyline. As the musicians played (and boy, could they play! Igor Butman, who leads the troupe, looks like an accountant. But he plays like a black man from the Mississippi Delta.), the sun went down, and the skyline lit up. We sipped our drinks, let the tenor sax wash over us, and thanked God that we were lucky enough to be alive and in New York City. Amazing.

Add caption
After the show was over, we lingered a bit so as to let others leave and ease Atlee's navigation out the door with the crutches. We were in luck! The band started showing up at the bar to wet their whistles. I made time to tell Mr. Butman how much I had enjoyed my evening, and he gave me a hug and a sweet kiss on the cheek! Such a fun, fun night!!

More to come . . .

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Babies and beer in the Pacific Northwest (cont.)

Beer and babies at the Oregon Public House
The next day, we slept in. (Well, as much as you *can* sleep in with a 2-month-old!) Once the baby was fed and snuggled into Laura's arms, Grace and I walked about a block and a half from her house to pick up coffee and bagels at a local shop.

We had a lazy morning, then made our way into town to browse the antique shops. There were so many fun little stores to poke around in! We found ancient curling irons (The shop owner said women routinely burned their hair clean off using them.), little metal cases for everything from cosmetics to bobby pins, TONS of beautiful old cameras, even some old glass insulators! It was so tempting to buy things, but I didn't want the hassle of packing anything all the way back home!

When we found ourselves hungry around lunch time, we headed to the Oregon Public Housethe world's first non-profit pub. First, you select from a menu of charities. Then, you order off the menu. The profits that the pub normally would have made off your order are donated to the charity you picked out. It's #aletruism, and it's actually kind of brilliant. I chose the OPH nachos (delicious, and a BIG serving), washed down with a tall glass of hard cider.
Pie, my friends. PIE.

As we were finishing our snacks at the pub, the server there told us we HAD to go to a nearby pie shop for dessert. Such a fervent rec had us looking for the place straightaway.

She wasn't wrong. The Random Order Cafe serves big, beautiful pies of all kinds, from sweet to savory. They also pour delicious specialty coffees and cocktails. I had a GIANT slice of cherry pie with a huge mound of real whipped cream on top, alongside a hefty cup of coffee with cream. We all had fun trying each other's pies (and drinks - Laura got a nudge - coffee with liquor in it). I had so much fun at this place that I nearly had my mail forwarded.

A fire dancer. Just another
random night in Portland.
Full from the pub grub and pie, we opted to return home for a well-deserved nap! We'd been so busy since we'd arrived that we were pooped! We lazed around until evening, when Ryan and I decided to go out for a bit. The first place we went to pick up dinner was closed for remodeling. (And, boy, did they mean it. We peeped in through the back door, and there literally was NO FLOOR in the place.) Ryan was starving, so we ended up just parking the car and walking into the Mac! Mac and Cheesery. It was just the ticket! The menu is about a million takes on mac and cheese, plus a few sandwiches and salads, and of course, a full bar. We each got a drink and a giant plate of mac. I chose the truffle variety, studded with peas, mushrooms, truffle oil and prosciutto. (I ate one plate there, and got another to go for Laura and Grace back home! Yummmm!)

After we were finished, we thought we might head over to Salt and Straw for some ice cream. We ended up having to park about a couple of blocks away because the whole street was closed off for a festival. We watched a fire dancer perform for a bit (just another random night in Portland, you know?) before realizing that, due in part to the festival, the line for Salt and Straw was impossibly LONG! Giving up on our bum luck, we headed back to the house.

The Portland Museum of Art has an impressive collection!
The next morning, on our last day in Portland, we visited the Portland Museum of Art. We had a quick pastry and some coffee in their on-site cafe, and then headed for the art! I really enjoyed this museum. It's plenty big enough to keep you occupied, but small enough that you can cover it in a day. A gorgeous and varied collection, everything from Asian art to classical European paintings to a really impressive exhibit on Native American art and culture. I even enjoyed their modern collection, and I'm normally not a fan of modern art.

The Native American exhibit is particularly notable.
We stayed at the museum until fairly late in the afternoon. Now, there was a place we'd been driving by nearly every day that I'd wanted to stop at. It was called Sausage Kitchen, and it had a big red and white sign with a pig on it. (I knew immediately that these were my kind of people.) All week, Grace had been driving right by it. I FINALLY convinced her to stop for some food to go! As soon as I walked in, I knew we'd made a good choice. They smoke their own meats, and they also do a lot of processing. The veryvery old lady behind the counter fixed us up with several different kinds of delicious sandwiches, a few bags of chips, and a few neat specialty sodas to try. What fun! We headed home and ate. It. UP!

That night, our last night in Portland, Laura and I kept that sweet little baby while Grace and Ryan went out. I loved on all of his sweet baby softness. I gave that little munchkin a bath. (So much fun! He's such a cute little feller, and it made me remember when I used to bathe Clay, when he was a baby!) We fed him a bottle, burped him, gave him lots of kisses, and rocked him to sleep. It was so, so precious to be with him.

Baby Owen! What a sweetie!
We were up EARLY the next morning to head home. I was so THRILLED that we got a chance to see Grace and Ryan, and especially little Owen! I cannot WAIT until I get to hold that baby in my arms again! What a heartbreaker!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Babies and beer in the Pacific Northwest (cont.)

Santiam River
On Monday, Grace and Ryan had plans for us. We ALL loaded into the Jeep (and I mean all of us, even the dogs) and hit the road. We drove for an hour (hour and a half?) down some pretty winding mountain roads. The day was gorgeous, sunny and clear, and the scenery was beautiful.

Then we parked at a trail head, and everyone shrugged on a pack with some of what we'd need for the day. (Grace took Owen, of course, in the baby carrier, and some of his stuff. I packed in towels and food. Laura had a big cooler of drinks, and Ryan packed in a small tent and some other snacks/baby gear.)

We took a 10-minute hike through a beautiful old-growth forest. Trees were massive, and the sunlight filtered through leaves, making everything look even greener. I'd never seen the two dogs any happier. They were running ahead, sniffing everything, scooting back to check on us, and then taking off again down the trail. As we walked further down the trail, we could hear the sound of water.

After a bit of walking, there was a punch-through on the trail that led down to the Santiam River. A set of huge boulders jutted out into the river there. On one side of them was a short waterfall, and on the other side, the river wound through tall stands of trees. The rocks offered the perfect perch for one to sun and from which to jump into the river for a quick swim.

Mr. Pittock himself!
We unpacked, setting up the tent on the soft forest floor (in the shade) at the base of the rocks, spreading out our picnic gear for lunch, and stripping down to our swimsuits. We enjoyed our sandwiches, chips and fruit, and then it was time to give ourselves over to the river. I was the first to jump in.

That shit was cold. I mean COLD. Like, glacial. (And the river probably is glacial melt.) I swear, two degrees colder, and that water would have been solid. Here's what you do. You sit on the rock. You get hot. You jump in the river to cool off, IMMEDIATELY getting out. (Otherwise, you'll probably get hypothermia.) Then, you sit back on the rock again. This method allows for maximum outdoor enjoyment in Oregon in the summer.

Two of Grace's friends joined us, and we had a wonderful day out there. It's so pretty out there, with the river and all the trees and the mountains. We took turns holding Owen, and he napped obligingly in his tent for a while. After a bit, Laura and I decided to take a further hike down the trail to see what there was to see.

By late afternoon, we were beat. We piled back into the Jeep and headed home, stopping at a fruit stand along the way to buy fresh cherries. We ordered gourmet pizzas that night for dinner from Mi Famiglia. We got a couple of orders of steamer clams (YUM!) and three pies: the holy trinity (pepperoni and sausage with mushrooms), the fig and prosciutto (Oh. Em. Geeee!), and the wild mushroom and gorgonzola. Maybe it was because we were so hungry, but we LOVED this food! They had such inventive pizzas to choose from, and they were all so, so good. So well thought-out and made. We ate on the back patio again, washing down our slices with glasses of red.
The beautiful music room at Pittock Mansion

The next morning, we decided to take a trip into the city. We started with a quick breakfast at Singer Hill Cafe, a darling spot with a room full of vertical gardens and local art on display. I had a bagel with fruit, and Laura and Grace got delicious pieces of quiche. I really liked how the restaurant can almost be completely opened up to the outdoors on pretty days. Clever.

Laura wanted some time alone, so we dropped her off at the Chinese Classical Garden, and then Grace, Owen, and I headed for Pittock Mansion. I'd never been to Pittock Mansion, and I was anxious to see the home of one of Portland's first and most influential families.

From their website (edited for length):
English-born Henry Lewis Pittock journeyed on a wagon train from Pennsylvania to Oregon in 1853 where, at the young age of 19, and in his own words, “barefoot and penniless,” he began working for Thomas Jefferson Dryer’s Weekly Oregonian newspaper. In 1860, at the age of 26, he married 15-year-old Georgiana Martin Burton of Missouri. Together, Henry and Georgiana began a long life of work, community service, and devotion to family, which would last 58 years and celebrate six children and eighteen grandchildren. A consummate businessman, Henry Pittock took ownership of the Weekly Oregonian in 1860. He went on to build an empire incorporating real estate, banking, railroads, steamboats, sheep ranching, silver mining, and the pulp and paper industry.
Pittock Mansion gardens
Pittock started as a newspaper man, but soon he and his family had their fingers in every pie in Portland. The whole family loved the mountains, founding mountaineering clubs. Many of the Pittock women were avid gardeners, cranking up local garden clubs and rose associations. The home is massive and perched carefully to take advantage of sweeping views of the mountains. Careful gardens and footpaths at the base of the house maximize views, as do the large windows throughout the house. (Even the pantry had a window in it.) All in all, it was good to be a Pittock!

After touring the mansion, Grace, Owen and I picked Laura back up. We all headed for the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Oregon City. I loved this museum! It's several adjacent buildings of artifacts and interactive displays, and each one has a big wagon cover frame over the top of it. You start in a spacious gift shop, where you can buy tickets, souvenirs and other items, then head into the first building. As you move through the exhibits, you do so in sequential order as travelers on the Oregon trail. First, you go to a mercantile and pack your wagon. There, you also learn about the types of lives the pioneers would have been leaving behind - more developed social networks, better schools, less cholera. You see some of the promotional materials that would have enticed travelers to hit the trail. You also watch a very moving video that tells the story of several trail riders in their own words, dramatized from actual accounts. It's very well done.
End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center

Then, you trace your path along the trail, learning more about the flora and fauna of the region and finding out how many of the travelers fared on their journey. (The answer? Touch and go. It was unimaginably difficult to survive such a trek. Sickness, injury, accidents, bitter weather - all contributed to kill you off before you finally made it to Oregon City.) Finally, you end at another general store, where you basically thank God that you survived and stock up for making your life in a new place.

This was a really interesting place to learn about the kind of moxie it took to head for Oregon and the kind of physical toughness required to survive the trip. They have some outdoor exhibit space, too. I'm very glad we got the chance to stop by!

By this time, we were pooped! We headed back to the house for a rest, as we had big plans for dinner.
I made it!

That night, Ryan kept Owen while Grace, Laura and I went out to a fancy dinner at Paley's Place. This is one of those gourmet, organic restaurants that sources their ingredients locally and is run by an award-winning chef. Prices are crazy, but the food and service is absolutely fantastic. Definitely a splurge, but one we decided was well worth it.

We started with the steak tartare and the taste of all charcuterie platter. Oh dear Lord. These were both amazing. The tartare comes with a golden yellow egg yolk on top, and you mix it into the velvety meat with all of the other goodies. Then, you spread it on little toasts and eat. It. UP!! The charcuterie platter offered endless tastes of this and that, comparing with your dining companions about your favorites and what nibble tastes best on which type of bread. (The chicken liver pate and the pork and green garlic rillete were our top picks.) Then, we ordered entrees. I chose the salmon, a delicious pile of fish, asparagus and fruit compote. For dessert, I couldn't resist the summer flight, offering tastes of three different sweet confections.

The food is magical here. Well worth a visit!

More to come . . .

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Babies and beer in the Pacific Northwest

Note the ingratiating onesie!
A few months ago, my sweet little sister gave birth to a beautiful baby boy! (You may remember my earlier blog post about her reveal party in Jackson over the Christmas holidays. So fun!) Precious little Owen was born in early May. But because my adorable bundle was aaaaall the way in Portland, Ore., I didn't get a chance to hold him until late June!!

My older sister, Laura, and I headed up there for a week of baby love when the little sweetie was about two months old. Due to flight delays galore (Houston is like the purgatory of airports.), we didn't get into Portland until something like 1 a.m. Owen was already asleep that first night, so I didn't even get to love on him until the following morning!

Laura and I slept in a bit the next morning before waking up to love on some baby! Oooooh, he's so cute! Little fingers! Itty bitty toes! The sweetest little bow mouth, especially when he yawns! He's got dark hair and eyes and he's a very chilled-out little guy.

We all piled into the car for a celebratory breakfast at La Provence. Now, back when I visited Portland for the first time, Grace and I sought this place out. (Delicious!) Since then, they've moved up in the world, opening multiple locations in the Portland area. I'm pleased to say they are just as good now, if not better, than they were when I first dined with them back in 2008. It was late on a Sunday morning, so our group of 4 1/2 had to wait a bit for a table. We sipped coffee until it was our turn to be seated, and then the feasting began!

Powell's rocks!
We started with mimosas and bloody marys all around, and then ordered four amazing (and huge) dishes for breakfast. Laura had the salmon hash, a gorgeous concoction of salmon, leeks, eggs, potatoes and lemon dill sauce. I chose the meurette benedict, two eggs poached in a Burgundy reduction and served atop a croissant with caramelized onions, mushrooms, and bacon. Everything was absolutely delicious, and portions were LARGE. As further evidence that this place isn't playing around when it comes to breakfast, they put the egg wash on their countless giant pans of croissants with a paint sprayer. Yep, like what you buy at Home Depot. No joke.

Prices at Le Provence are definitely spendy, but the food is so good, and you are honestly so full and deliriously happy when you leave, that you don't care. In fact, we bought a big box of pastries and a loaf of bread on our way out, for later.

After brunch, my brother-in-law had some errands to run. My younger sister, stir crazy after being home alone with an infant for two months, was giddy at the prospect of being able to get out and about. (It's a little less daunting to take a baby all over town when you've got two other moms with you who can carry stuff and help with the very small people.) The three of us, plus sweet Owen in the baby carrier, decided to stop by Powell's Books. Laura had never been before, and it was on her list. This is a store for book lovers. First of all, it's massive, taking up at least a city block. It's well organized, and there are opinionated notes in the stacks from staffers regarding all kinds of titles. They buy back used books from customers and then re-sell them, offering buyers a significant selection of reduced-price tomes. And, they offer books like Dancing with Jesus, which had a hologram for a cover. (See photo. Awesomesauce.) I kid you not. I love this place.

View on my evening stroll
After Powell's, we headed over to Saturday Market. Again, Laura had never been, so we were checking some items off for her. While Grace and Owen relaxed on the grass near a fountain, Laura and I investigated all of the booths, looking at original art, jewelry and other goodies. After a while, we reconnected with Grace and Owen and headed back to the house for a rest.

Once we'd recharged, Laura and I went with Ryan to a nearby grocery store, where we loaded up on food for dinner, snacks and general noshing for the week. That night, we made gorgeous bruschetta (with our Le Provence bread. mmmmmmm!), along with a plate of cheese, fruit, olives, nuts and other nibbles. We enjoyed all with big glasses of wine on their beautiful back patio for dinner.

Since it stayed light until late, I decided to go for a quick walk after eating. There's a pretty riverside trail within a couple of blocks of Grace's house, and I had the nicest, most peaceful stroll along there as the shadows got long. Then, it was back home and to bed, to bed!

More to come . . .

Monday, July 21, 2014

Noshing in New Orleans

I'm in New Orleans a good bit for business, and I thought I'd weigh in on a few restaurants that are worth a stop.

1.) Oceana Grill. One night, a group of us hit this casual (but yummy) spot in the French Quarter for dinner. There was a line out the door, so we knew the food would be good! I had the Redfish Oceana, which was delicious, and a cocktail or two from the bar. Service was quick and friendly, and the place has a lively, slightly clubby atmosphere. Prices are reasonable. We all enjoyed this spot!

2.) Kingfish. Another group dinner. Here, I had the "Every Man A King" fish, because I obviously believe in ordering whatever dish the restaurant chooses to give its own name to! It arrived on a giant brick of Himalayan salt, and I ate. It. UP! Delicious, delicious. One of my dining companions got the "Junky Chick" chicken, and I nearly speared a bite or two off her plate without permission. Our party also ordered a few of the small plates/sides to sample, including the golden beet salad and the cheese grits. This is an upscale restaurant, with prices to boot. Service was great, and they also had a fun, inventive cocktail menu.

3.) Elizabeth's. On our way out of the city one morning, a friend and I went out to the bywater to have breakfast at Elizabeth's. Why, you ask, especially when there are so many other delicious choices closer to the quarter? Two words. Praline. Bacon. We'd heard people gush over it, and we had to try it ourselves! I must tell you, it's absolutely as good as they say it is! I had a GIANT veggie omelet with a side of the heavenly bacon, and I was full nearly until dinner! Worth searching out.

4.) Borgne. This John Besh restaurant is literally in the lobby of the Hyatt that I stay in when I visit New Orleans, and I couldn't be happier about it. I've had several things off their menu, and all of them have been delicious! The black drum a la plancha is delicious, as is the fish in a bag. The deconstructed key lime ice box pie is an unexpected take on a classic, and the rum ice cream totally makes it. Recommended.

5.) Allegro. This quiet little white tablecloth bistro is practically across the street from Borgne. I love popping in here for fresh fried oysters, a cup of coup or bisque, or a nice salad. Service is quick, and the location is incredibly convenient for me when I'm in the city.

6.) Cochon. I finally got the chance to try this place a few weeks ago! Three of us stopped by for lunch one day and had a ball trying several different small plates: wood fired oysters, fried chicken livers, crawfish pie, crawfish and green tomato casserole, everything we had was good! I am not a fried livers kind of person, and I almost fought some of the other people at the table for them! Atmosphere was casual, food and service was great, and prices, though not cheap, were definitely reasonable for the quality of food we enjoyed.

7.) Peche. A sister restaurant to Cochon, I went to Peche for dinner one night with two friends local to New Orleans. What a find! We'd reserved a table for an early meal, and I was really glad we had. The restaurant filled up quickly (and completely) within 30 minutes of our arrival. Much like Cochon, we chose several different items to share. We started with the smoked tuna dip and moved on to the shrimp roll, the fish sticks, the white beans with bacon, and more. So, sooooo good!! Both Cochon and Peche are great for groups. The small plate menus encourage ordering something other than the usual and sharing with the table. Recommended.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Back to the beach

At the beach behind Shaggy's restaurant
In mid-May, hubs went up to Tennessee for his twice-annual video game weekend with college buddies. (It's completely adorable. He games live with these folks over the Internet, and then a couple of times a year, they meet up and play Call of Duty all weekend long, with a trip or two to a Brazilian steakhouse thrown in for good measure. He loves it and gets so psyched getting ready for it! He's like a nerdy nerd on Nerdmas morning!)

Realizing that we'd be left to our own devices for a few days, Clay and I looked at each other and said, "Why don't *we* go do something fun?" That's how we ended up in Biloxi! That Friday after work, we drove down and checked into the Hampton Inn Biloxi. We'd never stayed there before, but we wanted something close to the beach and easy on the pocketbook. This place fit the bill!

Tummies rumbling, we headed straight for Shaggy's, our perennial beachside dinner destination. After a very short wait, we got a great table on the back deck. Clay munched on his sliders, while I had the fish of the day. (There was a very enterprising seagull on the back deck. He'd swoop in, steal packets of mayo, and then perch at a safe distance to peck at them and drain their contents. One of the employees at Shaggy's stood guard with a water gun to dissuade him, and Clay got to help. He was very proud of himself!) After Clay was finished with his dinner, the waiter brought out a FREE "cookie monster," a concoction of cookies, whipped cream and maraschino cherries, just for him. Clay thought he was the biggest deal ever.

After we ate, we enjoyed the beach a bit before returning to the hotel, running little people through the tub, and bedding down for the night.
If your kid is bouncing off the walls,
remove the walls!

The next morning, we woke to a rather uninspiring breakfast at the hotel. I tried to give it a chance, honestly, and there was quite a bit of variety. However, nothing tasted really GOOD. We picked at our food and headed out to the beach.

The hotel is right across the street from the water, and while crossing the busy roads can be tricky, it's a quick process. We walked down to the Biloxi lighthouse and its nearby pier, finding treasures that had washed ashore the previous night. Clay brought a ball, and we kicked it all along the shore. We also spent a bit of time by the pool at the hotel, sunning, swimming, and reading.

By lunchtime, we felt like getting in the car, so we headed to the Half Shell Oyster House in Biloxi. It's only a hop and a skip from the hotel, and it's one of my favorite places to eat when I'm on the coast. I had a big plate of Royal Reds (deliciously meaty and sweet, with melted butter for dipping), and Clay scarfed down chicken strips and broccoli. After lunch, we cruised back to the hotel for a nap.

When we awoke, we decided to take a drive to Ocean Springs and stroll the sweet little downtown area. It's full of shops and restaurants. (We also wanted to scope out Tat-O-Nut for the following morning. We'd heard that this place was a legend on the coast, but we'd never been there.) The area was so bustling that we almost couldn't find a place to park! In the end, we decided to dinner at Government Street Grocery, so we parked our car in their (tiny) lot.

This actually ended up being a great choice. We got to eat outside, and the weather was so nice! I gobbled a shrimp po-boy, and Clay had a PB&J off the kids' menu. We took our time, talking and laughing. (And also eavesdropping. A nearby table was discussing the benefits of exercise. One woman noted, "I like to walk, and then run, and then walk, and then run." Another woman responded, "I like to walk, and then stand. And then walk, and then stand." I couldn't resist a sly chuckle at that one!)

Afterwards, we strolled the downtown area (finding, sadly, that Tat-O-Nut would be closed in the morning due to an equipment issue). We tried to hunt up some ice cream, but came up empty at the late-ish hour. In the end, we drove slowly home, the top of the convertible down so we could take in the sea air.

Treasure hunting
In the morning, we were meeting my sweet sister-in-law and her son for a late breakfast. We lazed around the hotel and took one last turn on the beach before checking out. Now, usually, we all get together at McElroy's for breakfast on the coast. There are two locations close by, and both have water views (one of the ocean, and one of the bay). But you know me. I *had* to try something new. I did some checking online, and we headed for In and Out Breakfast. It's a tiny place, owned and run by a local couple. There's a drive through window if you can't land one of the four tables. Portions are huge, and prices are cheap, but I didn't think the food was all that good. And service was really slow. I probably won't return to this spot. At least the company was wonderful! We caught up with family, and I promised that McElroy's would get NO COMPLAINT from me on our next trip!

Before Clay and I hit the road, I knew I had to stop at Le Bakery for goodies to take home. The last time, I hadn't bought enough, and I literally had to FIGHT my family to get any pastries! So this time, I loaded up. Two boxes of buttery, flaky goodness later, we were on the road. On the way home, we stopped once at a beautiful little fruit and vegetable market on Highway 49 for fresh food and a little ice cream for Clay. Then, we coasted back to Jackson!

Clay and I had fun on our weekend date at the beach! Hmmmmm . . . where will we go the next time hubs has a video game weekend?! ;-)

Wine, sun, and the sea

Toe-tickling waves
In mid-April, I had the delicious opportunity to pop in on the SanDestin Wine Festival with a group of girlfriends. What a fun trip!

I drove down to Florida from New Orleans (where I'd been on business) on Friday evening. The weather was absolutely glorious, so I put the top down on the convertible and enjoyed the ride! Once I arrived, I checked in to the beautiful SanDestin Golf and Beach Resort. (We'd all been there before during an industry conference back in 2012.) We'd booked two double rooms for our party of four.

After settling down a bit, it was out to the resort for dinner at Acme Oyster House. A dozen oysters later, we legged it around Baytowne Wharf before bed. The next morning, after a quick coffee and bagel at Cafe Siena, we headed to the beach. The day was warm, even if the water was a bit chilly. I walked along the water's edge and let the surf tickle my toes. Something about being near the ocean always washes me out inside. It's as if everything I've been worrying about is small and temporary next to something so old and vast.

I love these ladies!
By this time, the wine festival itself was in full swing. We popped around to most of the booths (and there must have been one or two hundred, honestly),  sampling every type of wine and champagne imaginable. A couple of the booths had little snacks/appetizers (merlot chocolate cupcakes. mmmmmmmm.), coupons for shopping in local stores, and other freebies on offer as well. There was live music, tons of wine enthusiasts and just a general celebratory atmosphere.

Feeling a little woozy, we grabbed some lunch back at Baytowne Wharf, at the Lazy Gecko Deck Bar (I don't know if I'd label their fish tacos the "world's best," as they do, but they were quite yummy!), followed by a smidge of ice cream at Moo La-La's. Then, we did a little shopping. (One member of our party bought a KILLER dress at one of the on-site boutiques. I'm usually not a fan of paying inflated prices to do such shopping, but it was on sale, completely classic, and she looked absolutely fantastic in it.)

On the back deck at Pompano Joe's
After such a marathon day, it was back to the hotel room to rest and freshen up before dinner.

In our group of four, two of us wanted to stay on property for Italian that night, and two of us were jonesing for seafood with a beach view. We split up, and Sandi and I headed to Pompano Joe's, in Destin. We got a gorgeous table on the back deck, where we watched the sun set and nibbled on our grilled fish. Kids played in the waning light, and after darkness fell, we watched families creep out with their flashlights to observe tiny crabs skittering across the sand. Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous.

Late that night, we met up again at the hot tub, dipping our feet in the bubbly waters in the dark, talking, and laughing as the moon hung suspended overhead.

The beach at sunset. Aaaaaahhh!
In the morning, it was breakfast at the Destin Donut Hole Bakery and Cafe. This place is very popular, so expect a wait on weekend mornings. Our party of four was seated after a short wait, and then we ordered giant plates of breakfast deliciousness. I chose the Texas sweet potato pancakes with praline sauce. Oh. Em. Gee!! I ate until I couldn't hold any more, then waddled back out to the car, put the top down, cranked the radio, and headed back home.

If you are considering the SanDestin Wine Festival as a girls' trip, I can't recommend it highly enough! We loved our trip!

Three-sentence book reviews

Playing catch-up on some of the books I've been reading. Below are some quick reviews:

1.) The Night Circus is magical and sensory. This book is one of the absolute favorites I've been lucky enough to pick up lately. Author Erin Morgenstern creates a lush world full of stories that will stay with you.

2.) Resonate is a communications tome by Nancy Duarte on putting together impactful presentations. Duarte's book helps you understand the structure of speeches and offers devices to hook viewers. It was so good that I'm moving on to her Slideology next.

3.) One Thousand Gifts is a book about spirituality and thankfulness. Sue Voskamp has reintroduced me, in some ways, to the God I'm excited about knowing. She has a knack for uncovering the constant conversation between us and God through all the little, everyday blessings we often fail to notice.

4.) The End of Your Life Book Club. Moving and intellectual, this book gave me tons of other titles for my reading list. It's a poignant story about sons and mothers and facing mortality with strength. It's also a love letter to reading, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much.

5.) Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? is a funny beach read by writer/comedian Mindy Kaling. She has a strong voice and an easy to digest style. This book is perfect for planes and vacations.

6.) The Cleft. Nobel prize winner for literature by Doris Lessing, this book is an alternative human origin story. This was a plodding mess, and it turned out to be a HUGE disappointment. My advice is avoid, avoid, avoid.

7.) The Stone Diaries is a wonderful, far-flung novel that traces the "ordinary" life of Daisy Goodwill Flett. Winner of the Pulitzer, the book examines all of the little ways our lives hold meaning through a variety of ensemble characters. No life is truly ordinary, is it?

8.) The Corrections. Focusing on a small Midwestern family, this book starts out slow but gains steam/pulls story lines together as it progresses. It's a well-written commentary on modern family life, changing societal expectations and human habit. By Jonathan Franzen, this was the winner of the National Book Award for Fiction.

9.) I found Start With Why through a communications colleague. Like many business books, it could stand to lose 50-75 pages, but I like the basic premise. Author Simon Sinek is a bit Polyanna-ish about business success, but luckily for him, so am I.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Deep in the heart of Texas, cont.

Clay gets a lesson from Mr. Charles.
On day seven of our trip, it was off to the Institute of Texan Cultures. Based on my research, this place seemed like a perfect fit for little man. There are tons of displays on all the different cultural groups that have settled in Texas (American Indian, French, Greek, Dutch, Italian, Swiss, even an exhibit on the Lebanese!). Plus, visitors can enjoy a moving multimedia show projected on the facility's dome show theatre ceiling. Then, in the "Back 40," outside the museum, you can go inside an adobe house, a fort, a one-room school house, a barn and a log house. Kids can pick up/touch all the furnishings and get an idea of what life was like for settlers in Texas.

But the very best part? Because it was spring break, the museum had trained, costumed volunteers throughout the facility to help kids with hands-on activities, answer questions and tell them about Texas history. Mrs. Frances let Clay spin wool into thread so he could make a bracelet. Two cowboys at the chuck wagon taught him how to climb into a saddle. Mr. Charles out in the school house showed him how to keep the stove stocked with wood to heat the building and fetch water in a pail from the pump so kids could have a drink. In the barn, Clay ground hard corn kernels into meal. 

This raccoon was from Montana.
Our favorite was the frontier man, dressed all in skins over at the log cabin. He and Clay made fire. I kid you not. Coolest. Thing. EVER. Clay was completely dazzled. (Plus, when the frontier man saw Clay's coon skin cap, he pulled two REAL coon skin caps out of his pack. Clay got to touch them, feel how soft they were and guess where the raccoons had lived based on the thickness of their fur.)

After a morning of fun, we were ready for lunch. A kind lady at the museum's entrance suggested we walk over to Bill Miller BBQ for a fast, filling meal that was easy on the pocketbook. We had to cross a few very busy streets, but there were crosswalks. We went through the line and bellied up to brisket, fries, green beans and a big slice of apple pie. Yum! Food was delicious, service was super-quick and the tables were packed at this casual spot.

Then, it was off to Boerne for an activity I'd arranged in advance - a one-hour trail ride! Clay had ridden a tethered horse around in a circle before, but he'd never been on a real trail ride. I found Stricker Trail Rides, only about 30 minutes north of San Antonio, on TripAdvisor. Initially, we'd planned to spend a half day at a dude ranch in Bandera. But because it was spring break, they were only offering full day bookings. I worried that a full day (plus an hour's drive out, and another hour's drive back) might be a bit much for little man, so I investigated other opportunities. 
He cowboyed up!

I'm so glad I did. Mr. Willie Stricker himself led our ride, and the horses were gorgeous. Clay got the smallest horse, Anna (and a bike helmet, because you can never be too safe). Brian and I both got big, beautiful horses. Mine was named Spirit, and Brian's was named Prize. There were other folks on the ride, too, and our entire party was around 10 people. Mr. Willie saddled up, and we enjoyed a little over an hour on horseback, following a trail through the Texas hills. Yellow wildflowers dotted the hillsides, and the breeze blew my hair back off my face. We even got to trot in a few level spots! It had been a while since I'd ridden a horse, and I forgot how wonderful it was! As soon as the ride was over, Clay wanted to go again. Now that we're back home, I'll be looking for some close places he can ride here!

On our way back to San Antonio, we figured we'd find some dinner. Our guidebook recommended a place called Bin 555 for Mediterranean tapas and wine. We typed the address into our GPS and hit the road. But when we arrived, we didn't see the spot. When I asked, a local told us that a few weeks before, the owners had completely reinvented the restaurant, redesigning the menu to reflect an Asian fusion sensibility and renaming the place Umai Mi. We decided to give it a try!
The scenery was gorgeous.

I am soooo glad we did. We ordered several small plates - the tom kha soup, the combination fried rice, the shrimp rolls, the "expensive" mushrooms (on special at $6) - plus one larger plate of lemongrass chicken. The food was amazing. The soup was a rich, flavorful broth dotted with cilantro oil. The fried rice was full of delicious goodies, and the shrimp rolls were hot and crispy without being greasy. The good-sized portion of tender lemongrass chicken came with a bowl of steamed rice. Clay happily munched on fried rice while we watched the kung fu movie being projected on a nearby wall. (There wasn't any sound, so we got to make up everyone's lines! It was a very interesting plot, to say the least!) On the way out, Clay got his boogie on in the restaurant's shaded deck. (Umai Mi plays an unexpected mix of hip hop and R&B over its sound system while you eat. Clay can't resist a beat!)

Stained windows at St. Joseph's
Saturday was our last day in San Antonio. We decided to try a late breakfast at Schilo's, which was only a few blocks from our hotel. It was a quick, yummy trip! The German deli is something of a historic landmark in downtown San Antonio, and it's housed in a former mercantile building. I chose the apple struessel with a side of bacon and a big cup of coffee, and hubs and Clay both had pancakes. The struessel was HUGE and delicious! (The pancakes weren't bad, either. I might have poached a couple of bites!) Schilo's was packed with young families and retirees, probably all drawn by the fun atmosphere, good food, quick service and low prices. 

After breakfast, Clay and I peeped into St. Joseph's Downtown Church. Out boat tour guide had pointed it out to us, and it was open, beautiful and free. We took a minute to admire the stained glass windows.

From there, we moseyed on over to RiverCenter Mall. We'd passed by it a few times, but hadn't checked it out yet. Of course, we found a Disney store inside. And a small kids' play area. After hitting both of those and buying a couple of souvenirs for hubs, we stumbled across a movie theatre. The sky was threatening rain outside, so we bought a couple of tickets for Mr. Peabody and headed in.

A few notes: 
  • The kiosk where you buy the movie tickets may not be the place where the movie is actually being shown. We bought tickets down at what I now know is the IMAX theatre, but the movie we were seeing was upstairs in the traditional theatre. Because our time was so close, we had to race upstairs! Luckily, we got there just as the previews were ending.
  • When I bought my tickets at the kiosk, I had to choose assigned seating for us. I thought that was pretty weird. Because the show was imminent, there weren't many choices left. I had to pick two seats on the second row. I worried we'd get cricks in our necks from craning to look up at the screen.
  • I had no reason to worry. When we got to the theatre, we sat in huge leather home theatre chairs with big cup holders. Not only that, a button on the arm rest literally reclined the chair almost fully back. You could practically LIE DOWN and watch your movie. Clay thought it was a HOOT, and so did I. 
The view from our balcony. Sigh.
After the movie, I dropped Clay back at the hotel with Brian so I could take a last walk around town. Finally feeling hungry again after our giant breakfast, I made my way to Zinc Bistro and Bar. A friend had recommended it, and she wasn't wrong. I chose a refreshing glass of sangria and the spicy spinach artichoke gratin. Mmmmmmmm. Feeling satisfied, I strolled through the La Villita area, poking my nose into shops and finding a few treasures to take home: some stained glass, some copper, a pale green pottery vase. It was St. Patrick's Day weekend, and there were tons of booths and other preparations going on. I people-watched, read the signs about this historic area and took my time. 

Hubs telephoned to say they were dinnering at Whataburger, so I was on my own. Online reviewers seems to agree that Biga on the Banks was amazing, so I decided to pop in for my last dinner in San Antonio. I was just in time for their Winter Fare prix fixe menu. I had a lovely salad, a nice piece of fish with sides and their famous sticky toffee pudding for dessert. Washed down with a glass of red and a cup of decaf with cream, it was the perfect ending to a glorious trip!

Then, it was pack, pack, pack for our VERY early flight the next morning. What a fun town! San Antonio is a big city, but it's very navigable. We loved our visit!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Deep in the heart of Texas, cont.

A curtain/drape formation at Natural Bridge Caverns
On day five, our big plans were tickets for the Hidden Passages tour at the Natural Bridge Caverns! After breakfast, we loaded up in the car and drove about 30 minutes north of San Antonio to the attraction. We got there *just in time* for our timed tour!

Our guides led us to a small pavilion, explained that we'd be climbing down 180 steps into a series of caverns, and then climbing those same 180 steps back UP, to see the rock formations growing below the surface.

The caves really are amazing. We saw stalactites and stalagmites, really unique formations (like the pincushion), a gorgeous formation called the Diamond River (with tons of sparkling little crystals) and beautiful, almost liquid-looking drapes of rock. Clay oohed and ahhed and asked tons of questions. ("Are there vampire bats in here?" he piped up during one noticeable silence.) When we got to the very bottom of the caves, we sat down on some benches. Then, our guides turned out the lights (completely) and asked us to listen. We could hear tiny drips of water everywhere, but we couldn't even see our hands in front of our faces. Really, really cool.
Diamond River formation - sparkly!

After that, we began the ascent up, back to light and air. When we finished our cave tour, we walked around the rest of the attraction. They have a big central entry point, where they sell tickets and operate a gift shop and cafe, and they also have some new storefronts. One building sells geologic souvenirs, there's a sweet shop and they also have a gorgeous Canopy Challenge - a ropes course with zip lines. Clay really, REALLY wanted to do the ropes course (and so did I, because the thing looks AMAZING), but he wasn't tall enough. Luckily for us, the attraction also offered the Amazen' Ranch Roundup, a maze course. Clay, Brian and I all did it, navigating our way through until we punched our cards at certain checkpoints and found the exit. It was a hoot! (Although, at moments, I thought I might die in there.) After a quick stop for a souvenir, we loaded back in the car.

HemisFair Park was built in the late 60s for the World's Fair.
Next up for our hungry crew was lunch in the city. We directed our GPS to Azuca, a nuevo latino place that turned out to be one of the best finds of our trip! We started with the fireballs as an appetizer, yummy corn fritters with different sauces to taste. I had the lunch catch, a fresh large serving of tilapia with sauteed vegetables and mashed potatoes. It came with a red salsa and a creamy adobo sauce, one on each side of the plate. Oh. Em. Geeeee!! This was soooo good. For dessert, we all split the tres leches cake, which was creamy and soft and sweet. Everything was fresh and tasty, prices were more than reasonable, and service was sweet, friendly and quick! We loved this place!

Our traditional "nerdy selfie at the top of a building"
After lunch, we visited HemisFair Park. We walked over from the hotel, taking the long avenue from La Villita that leads visitors directly to the Tower of the Americas. The park and the tower were both built in the late 60s when San Antonio hosted the World's Fair. (If you enter the park by this route, you'll walk by several vacant historic homes that sit within the park's perimeter. They are in bad shape and sad to see, but don't despair! The city has announced a revitalization of the park, which you can learn more about online.) It was a pretty day, so we enjoyed the park and the playing fountains a bit before buying our tickets for Tower of the Americas.

Then, we took the elevator way, way up to the top of the tower. When we got there, we had fun matching city landmarks in the skyline with indoor photos before going out onto the open-air observatory. What a rush! The winds were really, really high! It reminded me of when hubs and I went to Hawaii and stopped at Oahu's Pali Lookout! My purse was literally flapping above my shoulder, and my hair whipped around my head something fierce! Exhilarating! We stayed at the top of the tower for a while, alternating between admiring the skyline from indoors and going out to the observation deck for more windy fun. Finally, hunger drove us to leave, so off we went in search of dinner.

The wind was terrific at the top of the Tower of Americas!
We ended up back at Zocca. This time, I tried the clam linguine! YUM! After dinner and a glass of wine, we strolled very slowly back to the hotel and gratefully sank into bed.

By day six, I was ready for a bit of alone time. (Too much togetherness can spell doom for a family vacation.) Hubs and Clay decided they were going to try out the hotel pool again, and I headed out for a morning at the McNay Art Museum. What a good idea!

I got there just as it was opening, and the very helpful woman at the front desk walked me through a map of the facility. I hung a left, enjoying the museum's collections in modernism, post-impressionism, impressionism and sculpture before rapturously arriving at the theatre arts rooms.

Jacob Epstein's Helene bronze
Now, many museums don't even nod to the theatre arts. And it can be a difficult medium to capture and display. But the McNay has a stunning collection of marquettes from wonderful productions: Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, Richard III. Accompanying information puts the designs into context and gives you an idea of the overall production effort. Screen projections show you the art in action. It's just really, really well done. And the adjacent room is all about the technical values of the Fiddler on the Roof revival!! Woot! Drawings, sketches, models, even notes scribbled on the odd piece of notebook paper. Wonderful, just wonderful.

After spending significant time in the theatre arts rooms, I made my way to the southwest and medieval rooms. From there, you can step out on the glorious second-floor balcony, overlooking the museum's main center courtyard. You can take in the air, survey the beauty and feel what it might have been like to be Mrs. Marion McNay. A small staircase will lead you down to the courtyard, where you can watch the fountains play, sit on a bench, admire the flowers and then head back in to see the rest of the facility. (I peeped into the "Works on Paper" gallery. I remembered that when the greeter was talking me through the facility map, she'd specifically pointed this room out to me, noting, "You'll really enjoy that room," with a gleam in her eye. You know what was in there? Drawings of male nudes! They called the exhibit "The Full Monty!" Sly old girl!) At the end of my tour, I enjoyed a large temporary exhibit of Robert Indiana's work. Bright, colorful, opinionated.
One of Indiana's famous LOVE installations

By this time, I was hungry. I telephoned my partners-in-crime and asked if I could pick them up for lunch. I drove to get them, then came back out on Broadway to treat them to lunch at Chappy's. I had a juicy steak frites, and hubs and Clay both had burgers. The food here is so, so good. Prices are a bit spendy, but you get the distinct feeling that you're dining with more locals than tourists. Service was impeccable. There's a lot of construction on Broadway right now, but the restaurant has off-the-street parking.

After lunch, we decided to visit the San Antonio Botanical Garden. We were already on that side of town, and it was a sunny, pleasant day. After parking and paying our entry fee, we strolled through Gertie's Garden and ducked under a wisteria arbor. The Japanese Garden was closed for renovation, but we enjoyed the sensory garden, full of fragrant and tactile plants like rosemary and lamb's ear. Next, we headed for the Lucille Hall Conservatory. These pavilions were so enjoyable and beautiful. The tropical plants were lush and colorful, and we loved the desert environments with all their prickly denizens. Clay got a HUGE kick out of the "food" garden, which featured a coffee bean plant, a chocolate plant, a vanilla vine and many other recognizable edibles. We walked under the waterfall in the fern room, and then we climbed up, up, up through the palm and cycad pavilion! From there, we cut across to the children's vegetable garden, a very large plot full of all kinds of goodies. (Their children must be MUCH more hard-working than mine! Ha!)
Palm and cycad pavilion

Then, we wandered trails that reflected different Texas environments: the south Texas arid climate (with a cleverly concealed bird watching blind), the east Texas pineywoods (with a big lake, ducks you can feed and a log cabin to play in) and the hill country. We ambled back through the formal and display gardens before heading for a break in the hotel.

We weren't too hungry for dinner that night after such a hefty lunch. We popped out to Bella on the River, near our hotel, for cocktails and a few nibbles. I had a Bella Blush, hubs got a couple of bottles of beer and we split the antipasto platter. Clay had pasta marinara. We talked and laughed with the other diners seated al fresco as we watched the boats go by. It was a fun, relaxing ending to a fantastic day.

More to come . . .