Sunday, November 19, 2017

Hotlanta for One, Please

 I had to be in Atlanta in September for a conference, and I decided to trot up a few days early and see the sights. It had been such a long time since I'd been a tourist in Atlanta. I was excited to revisit it!

After my flight arrived, I checked into the Hampton Inn and Suites Downtown. I chose this hotel for its central location, attractive price point, and free breakfast. Throughout my stay in town, it was a comfortable home away from home, and the staff was super friendly and helpful. (The front desk staff and those keeping the breakfast buffet stocked were particularly attentive.)

Then, I changed clothes and caught an Uber to the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Oh, what a wonder it is! I had an absolutely gorgeous day to tour it, and the gardens did not disappoint! They showed off in the sunshine for all of the visitors! After entering, I started in the Trustees Garden, with a lovely courtyard and some views. I took a quick detour in the playful Children's Garden before admiring the striking Chihuly in the elaborate parterre garden (a formal garden, banked on two side by halls, with a lovely raised overlook. Then, the rose garden, the Japanese garden, the expansive great lawn.

I stopped for a quick bite of lunch at the LongLeaf Cafe, which is on-site, before continuing my tour.

Fried goat cheese at Ecco
There is so much to see here. The conservatory and orchid center are packed with interesting and exotic specimens, and I loved, loved the wood walks and the Goddess. (She was being restored at the time, but still cool to see!) I spent the better part of the day here, stopping in the gift shop on my way out for some treasures to take home.

I made my way back to my hotel and took a well-deserved break before venturing out for dinner that night. I'd heard good things about Ecco, and it was in close proximity to the Fox Theatre (where I had a 7:30 p.m. curtain), so it was a deal.

And, boy, was it a good one. At the suggestion of my waiter, I started with the fried goat cheese. Oh. Em. Geeeee!! Think balls of goat cheese, which are doused in a light tempura batter, then flash fried. They are placed in a bowl, drizzled with honey, and dusted lightly with black pepper. I got other things (the grilled squid, the deeply satisfying walnut cake), but the fried goat cheese was the find of the night. Just scrumptious! Service was good, prices were pretty reasonable, and they got me out the door in plenty of time to make my show.
The lovely Fox Theatre!

The Lincoln Center production of The King and I was touring, and I just happened to be in Atlanta during one of their nights at the Fox. It had been YEARS since I'd been to this theatre. Myself and a group of girlfriends had last visited to watch The Phantom of the Opera when we were in high school. On that long-ago night, I remember stepping into the gorgeous Fox Theatre and thinking that I HAD ARRIVED. The interior of the theatre is just beautiful, designed to look as though spectators are sitting outside, underneath a starry sky. I clearly remember thinking, "Look at all these sophisticated grown ups at this fancy theatre. And I AM ONE OF THEM."

Centennial Olympic Park
I can now report that the theatre is just as gorgeous as it ever was. I was a little worried that a big show like The King and I wouldn't travel well, but I shouldn't have. It was a brilliant production. The principals were so strong, and the emotional attachment of the theatre community to this classic is a powerful force. (When Anna and the King began to dance, her hoop skirts swirling, I admit to getting misty.) It was a wonderful production, and I was glad that I got the chance to see it!

The next morning, I enjoyed a day of conference sessions at Coca-Cola Headquarters. The interior of this building is completely brand-consistent, and you are never more than a few steps from an ice-cold Coke. (It was uncanny to see soft drink machines that didn't accept money. You just pushed the button, and whatever you selected popped out.)

Bison burger at Ted's Montana Grill
Once my conference activities were over, I headed to Centennial Olympic Park to stretch my legs. The park was constructed for the 1996 Summer Olympics, and it's still beautiful today. I entered at the Fountain of Rings. After a quick stop at the visitors' center, I walked down through all of the quilt gardens, which are shady and cool with water features. After stopping to admire the Paralympic Legacy, I walked back up the other side of the park, stopping to admire skyline views and art pieces.

After my turn through the park, I was hungry! I ducked into the nearby Ted's Montana Grill for dinner, ordering a bison burger with Gruyere and caramelized onions. Paired with fries and a huckleberry margarita, it was completely satisfying and a great meld of flavors.

Lovely views from SkyView Atlanta
Finished with dinner, I had one last activity on my must list. I walked a block or so to SkyView Atlanta and hopped aboard for sweeping views of Atlanta at sunset. So, so pretty. The giant ferris wheel punctuates the city skyline in this part of town, both day and night, and it's a treat to see all the landmarks from above!

Then, it was off to bed! More to come . . .


New Orleans delights!

The Copper Bunny at Compere Lapin
I've been in New Orleans for business quite a lot lately. It's given me the opportunity to try some new restaurants that are worth a stop if you're in town!

First of all, Compere Lapin (AKA Brother Rabbit). It's sort-of like a cross between French, Italian, and Carribbean food. Wildly inventive. If you go, you MUST get the steak tartare. It comes with a gremolata and an honest-to-goodness layer of beef fat on top. I could hear my arteries hardening as I chewed it, but it was AMAZING. I'd also heartily recommend the Copper Bunny cocktail, which comes in a HUGE glass shaped like a copper bunny. Our waitress had tons of personality, in addition to being prompt and making great menu suggestions. 

We also tried Maypop, a great place for Asian-inspired small plates. The salads, the noodles, and the cocktails were fantastic here. It's a small place, but we were lucky enough to visit early, so we didn't wait for a table at all. By the time we left, it was filling up.

Small plates at Maypop
Another place we loved - Cavan. A colleague of mine discovered this place online, and we couldn't resist stopping by for dinner. YUM. It's housed in a really cool, old mansion. The dining room is lovely, and the food is delicious, too. 

On my last trip, the find was Public Service, which is located in the NOPSI Hotel. The hotel has been reimagined in the old New Orleans Public Service headquarters building, and it nods to its history with clever artifacts and architectural details throughout the
Cavan's lovely dining room
property. In the restaurant, glass insulators decorate the tables, and the salt and pepper shakers look like inverted light bulbs. Artistic prints of electric infrastructure decorate the walls, and in the nearby lobby, the payment table still stands, featuring old streetcar tokens and company literature under glass. 

The restaurant serves delicious food, and we selected a few small plates and one entree to share. The pork belly and bone marrow small plates are indulgent and rich. To balance them, we also ordered a side of roasted vegetables. We rounded it off with a pasta entree (the mushroom tagliatelle) and the peanut butter banana pie (because we had to). Service was great, and the atmosphere was particularly appropriate! 
The view from Above the Grid!
Afterward, we poked around the public spaces of the hotel a bit and went up to the rooftop bar - Above the Grid - for a quick drink. Great views! I highly recommend a visit!

Yumming and Strumming in Tennessee (cont.)

Cronuts. Mmmmmm . . .
The next morning, we awoke, caffeinated, and hunted up Five Daughters Bakery for breakfast. Soooo good!! They have all kinds of amazing flavors of cronuts - which take 3 days to make and are filled with 100 layers of dough! I got the purist (classic) and the maple glaze versions to taste. Heavenly, and heavy. You can likely only get one down. If you get two, plan to halve them and share with a friend! (Also note - there's no dining in here. There's some limited outdoor seating, but it was completely full during our visit. Plan to take away.)

Our next stop was Centennial Park. The park was the site of the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition, and it remains lovely today. Flowers, trees, and shrubbery cluster around Lake Watauga, ducks paddle by, and between the ample benches and the public art, there's always a place to take a load off and admire something beautiful. The lovely Parthenon provides both a landmark and a place to learn about the park's history.

There's a small fee to access the interior of the Parthenon, where you can cool off, shop for souvenirs,
The Parthenon
admire beautiful art, and dig into the details of the exposition. There's also a huge, gold plated statue of Athena inside - a sight to behold.

After enjoying the Parthenon, we strolled the park a bit more. We loved the women's suffrage bronze, and we couldn't resist having our pictures made in front of it! Afterward, we noted that our stomachs were rumbling and decided to scare up some lunch. We parked the car near Vanderbilt University. Some of our party peeled off to a park across the street, where a food truck festival with live music was ongoing. Another contingent preferred air-conditioned eating, so we grabbed a table at Redlands Grill for ice water and Shrimp Louie salads. (I was part of the latter group!)

After lunch, we stopped by a grocery store to pick up a few necessities for the house. Then, we headed out for some shopping. Some in our group wanted to check out the flagship location of  Draper James, which is in a cool little shopping area. We joined the throngs and took a look. Such a sweet little store! Retail therapy accomplished, we headed back to the house to take a load off for a while.
Broadway from a rooftop bar

That night, several members of our party wanted to check out Broadway. We dressed up and caught an Uber. If you've never walked Broadway, think of it like Beale Street in Memphis, or Bourbon Street in New Orleans. We happened to be in Nashville on a very busy weekend (Vandy was holding move-in weekend, and the solar eclipse was imminent - Nashville was experiencing totality), and so Broadway was PACKED! You will see all of humanity passing by. (Including a dude dressed up like Jesus. I am so not kidding. I almost had my photo made with him.)

We walked it up and down, then settled into seats on the roof top bar of Tootsie's Orchid Lounge. It was so crowded. So. Crowded. It was at this moment when I began to think I was too old for all of this. Myself and another member of our party decided to peel off and search for a bit of personal space. A block or two off Broadway, it was easy to find. We poked around the Ryman and breathed for a bit, then headed back to Tootsies the back way.

Music at Tootsie's!
And that's when we found the back staircase at Tootsie's. If you enter the building that way, you are
literally *behind* all the music acts, not having to fight your way through a huge crowd to get to them. We went all the way to the top floor, enjoyed that act for a while, scooped up our friends, and ended the night rocking out at VIP seats literally an arm's reach from the band on the ground floor. So. Much. FUN!!

After some seriously awesome music, we decided to grab some dinner. It was late, but we got to Jack's Bar-B-Q just in time to shut it down. We were the last customers served, hunkering down over our pork plates and inhaling the mac and cheese. Tuckered out, it was back to the house for dreamless sleep, then the long drive back to Mississippi the next day.

We loved Nashville! Next time, I'll plan to stay longer! (We missed the Grand Ole Opry, and I don't intend to do so again!)

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Yumming and Strumming in Tennessee!

Biscuit gnocchi at Hog and Hominy
I have a group of girlfriends, and we've been meeting for dinner for nearly 20 years. (OMG. As I typed that, I realized how old we are.) Anyway, one of our party recently celebrated a landmark birthday. We decided that the occasion called for a girls' trip to Nashville!

We rented a cool house on Air BnB, planned a few must-sees, and off we went! Shawn and I decided to leave a day early and overnight in Memphis for food and fun. We rolled into town around lunchtime, navigating our way to Hog and Hominy, a Southern/Italian fusion place which the internet said had amazing eats. After trying their biscuit gnocchi, I have to agree! Shawn got a pizza, and we split the peanut butter pie (Lawdhavemercy.) for dessert. The place has a casual, airy feeling, with reasonable price points and really delicious dishes.

After lunch, it was off to the Staxx Museum of American Soul Music. In all of my years of going to Memphis, I'd never been there, and I couldn't wait to check it out! So fun! We walked through old churches, reconstructed within the confines of the museum, snooped through a layout of the studio where some of soul's greatest hits were recorded, and watch Isaac Hayes' custom Cadillac El Dorado  glitter as it spun beneath the lights. I loved the character of this museum, and I really loved the headphones throughout that allowed you to listen to landmark songs at the touch of a button. Worth a
stop!

After settling into our hotel, we hit downtown for dinner at Flight. I loved this place. I LOVED this place. Amazing small plates and wine flights, with an expert staff that knows what to recommend and how to steer you through the menu. And though the dishes and wines are grouped, you can order whatever you want. The delicious combinations are endless. I sampled small plates of lamb chop, pork, and fish, along with a flight of three glasses of different wines. Then, of course, Shawn and I had a dessert flight. Everything was so amazing. This was my best Memphis find of the trip, and I can't wait to return.

Heavenly dinner at Flight
We'd made a reservation, and I was glad we had, as the placed filled up. We had a lovely 2-top in the loft section, overlooking the main dining room. Service was perfect.

After dinner, we walked around downtown Memphis a bit, stumbling upon public art and the occasional street musician. Then, we returned to the hotel and sank gratefully into bed.

The next morning, Shawn had one thing on her mind - IKEA. Neither of us had ever been to one, and she was determined to check it out. Cups of coffee, and we were off! Here's what we learned - IKEA is HUGE. And the environments within it are staged. You open the drawers of the kitchen, and they have silverware and dishes in them. You open the closets, and clothing is hanging in side, with shoes neatly stacked at the bottom. They do everything they can to show you what it would be like to live in these environments.
Shawn marked IKEA off her bucket list!

I loved how they staged areas based on square footage. As in, "This is how you could stage an apartment of 700 square feet." (It seems remarkably livable.) We oohed and ahhed and nearly got lost several times before lunch, when we went to the cafe for a bit. (The meatballs really are good!) We looked some more after that, but had to leave at last to meet our other friends in Nashville on time.

That afternoon, we joined the rest of our party at the rental house. We mixed cocktails and tippled a bit before gussying up and heading to dinner at Lockeland Table. We had drinks and dinner, catching up and people-watching. (There was a guy on what looked like a blind date who had this really long, straight hair. He legit BRAIDED IT into two pigtails at the dinner table, while I watched in horror. Clearly, I was the least-hipster person there.)

Then, off to bed for another big day! More to come . . .

Inspiration at Historic Mission Control

Over the summer, I traveled to Houston for business. I haven't spent much time in the city, so while I was there, I decided to check out one of the area's top attractions - the Houston Space Center. It's a fascinating place, and I'd advise anyone to stop by for a full day of wonder!

First, a word about planning. I highly recommend purchasing your entry tickets online in advance. You can search online for admission codes and save dollars this way. It also lessens your time in line when you arrive. I also advise booking timed tickets for the free, on-site tram tours ahead of time online. Lines were long for the tram tours, but if you had a pre-booked ticket, you stepped right on the tram. All that to say, you can maximize your sight-seeing time with a bit of forward planning. 

I started my visit in the main plaza, which is the entry lobby that leads you to tons of cool artifacts - rovers, models of the International Space Station, an exhibit on NASA's Mission to Mars, Apollo modules, and space suits. I spent a good long while poking through some of the galleries here before heading over for my tram tour.

You can book either (or both) of the free tram tours, which take you to different attractions. Dress for the weather for these tours, and really for your whole visit, because you'll spend a good deal of time outside. I chose the tram tour that would take me to both Rocket Park (where an actual Saturn V rocket is on display) and historic Mission Control. (At the time, the other tour would have taken me to Rocket Park and the facility where astronauts currently train. I didn't have time for both!) The tour takes about an hour. 

Historic Mission Control
I loved this part of the attraction. To sit in the theatre at Mission Control, to see the little speaker box through which crackled some of our space program's most famous words ("Houston, we have a problem."), it was just amazing to be that close to American history. There is an honest-to-God red phone in there. (Holy history, Batman!) The tour guides were knowledgeable and pleasant, and they move guests in and out of the facility with precision. 

Rocket Park was interesting, too, with the sheer size of the pieces on display giving new perspective into what it takes to explore space. (There are drink machines and restrooms here if you need a break. In addition, the Saturn is inside, so you're shaded. Though the space isn't air-conditioned, big fans spaced throughout provide some relief on hot days.)

Even the time on the tram was interesting, with the guide telling you all about the history of the sights you were passing. (We even saw three deer!)

After the tram tour, I went back to the main building. There, I nosed through the Starship Gallery (An Apollo 17 module! A moon rock you can touch!) and headed for Independence Plaza. There, you can take an inside tour of a shuttle replica and a shuttle carrier aircraft. So cool! 

By this time, I was pooped, so I took a turn through the gift shop and called it a day. But I loved my visit here! It reminded me of how much we can accomplish if we work together!

Beach babies

Gorgeous day at the beach!
So, little man turned 10 over the summer. For past birthdays, I've thrown elaborate (and highly themed) parties. We've rented bounce castles for a medieval kings and queens party, propped up a huge water slide for a shark-themed extravaganza (conveniently scheduled during Shark Week), and reserved half of High Heaven for a trampoline fete. Custom-printed invitations, tons of decorations, theme cakes - I was all in. It was incredibly fun, but also incredibly exhausting.

So this year, when Clay said he'd rather grab a friend and head to the beach for the weekend, I was delighted. Luckily, one of his best friends in the neighborhood also has a cool mom (Jennifer) and a great little sister. So, we rented a two-bedroom condo in Biloxi, piled in the car, and hit the road.
Campfire cookies!

We'd found a great condo at The Ocean Club. It's right across the street from the beach (and there's a traffic light there, so it's easy to cross). Our condo was roomy, and we had a lovely balcony with ocean views. We settled in and spent the weekend swimming in the pool, walking the beach, and eating tons of seafood. We had big pancake breakfasts, and one evening, we made campfire cookies!

Jennifer and I even killed a glass of wine or two on the balcony. In short, a good time was had by all.

Frankly, I'm a little sorry for those of you who are still planning giant birthday parties. I'm going to work hard to steer little man to weekend trips from here on out!

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Time for Texas

A few weeks ago, I had the occasion to be in Texas for a day on business. I decided to show up early to give myself a free morning in Houston. What fun!

I arrived at the airport around brunch-ish, so I rented a car and made my way to The Breakfast Klub  It's so popular that they've opened a branch in the airport now, but I wanted to go to the source. It's a small restaurant. You stand in line (no list to put your name on), order at the counter, then take a seat. Before you know it, delicious (and not healthy) food comes piping hot out of the kitchen and onto your table.

The chicken and waffles at Houston's The Breakfast Klub
are not to be trifled with. 

I ordered the chicken and waffles. To be completely honest, I had never had chicken and waffles before. So heavy. So starchy. Not good for you. BUT it was one of their specialties, so if I was going to have it, I may as well have it from a place that's famous for it! And it was heavy. And it was starchy. But OMG. I totally understand why so many people have diabetes now!!! It was sooooo good! I ate more of the chicken than I did of the waffle, mainly because the chicken was so good that I wanted to weep tears of thankfulness. Feeling completely satisfied, I waddled back to the car.

It was a Monday, so most of the big museums were closed. There was one place open, though, that many on the world wide web seemed to think was a quintessential Houston experience - the Rothko Chapel. This unassuming building with its quiet courtyard is nestled in the museum district and holds  14 Rothko murals. It's free, and it appears to be open nearly every day. I found a parking spot on the street and went to check it out.

It's a quiet space, rounded off on the inside, with pews and pillows on the floor for sitting. Light is indirect. Time seems to slow down inside, as the murals quietly vibrate. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed, so I can't share that with you. However, it's a very unique place, and I recommend stopping in for some quiet reflection. 

The Rothko Chapel is the perfect place for quiet reflection.

By this time, my hotel room in The Woodlands was ready, so off I went. I checked into the Westin at The Woodlands there, and it was comfortable and VERY centrally located. I'd never visited The Woodlands before, and I found it fascinating. It's a master-planned community, with clusters of neighborhoods grouped around the city center. The city center features green space, an outdoor mall, several main streets lined with shops, restaurants, and movie theaters, and a man-made waterway and pond dotted with water taxis and kayakers. Though most of my time in The Woodlands was spent on business, I did enjoy the times I was able to get out and walk around, as it's a very walkable community. I did a bit of window shopping, enjoyed some of the outdoor public spaces, and ate in a few of the restaurants before it was time to head back home.

Until next time, Texas!

Sisters in San Francisco (cont.)

Lombard Street
Day 5

On our last full day in the city, we'd planned to hike Land's End for amazing views. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans. That day dawned chilly, windy, and cloudy. Pivoting, we figured we'd start the day by hitting some tourist attractions in the hopes that the sky would clear for an afternoon hike.

Our first stop was Lombard Street, the crookedest street in America. We watched a couple of truck drivers gingerly make their way down it, and we also enjoyed the city view at the top. Then, we headed for San Francisco's painted ladies, down near Alamo Park. We admired the intricate detail work on these beautiful Victorian-style houses while humming the Full House theme song. We also walked around Alamo Park a bit, as there are interesting houses to see on every side.

Laura, Grace, and the painted ladies!

After that, we walked to Golden Gate Park. (There were parts of this walk that were a bit sketchy. That, combined with the poor weather, made me wish we'd taken a cab for this portion of our jaunt.) Once there, and needing to warm up, the park's Conservatory of Flowers beckoned to us. What a great stop! We ducked into this historic landmark, which is the oldest wood-and-glass conservatory in North America. We were transported into a world filled with orchids, cycads, aquatics, and other fantastic plants. We particularly loved the butterfly room, where the delicate creatures fluttered all around us. (One even lighted on Laura's shoe!) This was a great place to slow down, take a load off, and warm up.

Butterfly at the Conservatory

After our visit to the conservatory, the weather was still poor. We sadly decided to bag our Land's End hike and take refuge in the deYoung Museum, which is also located in Golden Gate Park. Once inside, we first visited the cafe for some filling and very reasonably-priced lunch. Then, we lost ourselves in a world of American and contemporary art. They had some very interesting Dalis, and a Modigliani or two. They also had a large gallery where they paired paintings with descriptive poems written by students. Love that exhibit. We also enjoyed their African and Oceanic collections. Though the museum is sizable, it's easily covered in a day or a long afternoon, and there's plenty to keep you occupied! We spent the rest of the afternoon here, then caught a cab back to the hotel.

Dali at the deYoung

We had a special treat planned for dinner. One of my high school friends lives in the area, and she'd agreed to meet up with us! We started out at Barbacco Eno Trattoria for drinks and snacks, then made our way to Wayfare Tavern, where I chose the amazing fried chicken with whipped potatoes and a sparkling glass of brut rose. Lawdhavemercy! The food was delicious, but the company was even better! We chatted and laughed and gabbed and whooped and vented and just had the best time!! I was so glad to reconnect with her!!

After dinner, we blissfully sank into bed.

Day 6

We had plane tickets for early afternoon, so we didn't do much on our last day in town. We found a shipping shop where we mailed our wine back home. We also had a fantastic breakfast at a little spot called Homage, which uses the product of several local farms to offer a small but excellent menu. Then, it was pack-airport-plane-home!

What an amazing city San Francisco is! I can't wait to go back! And I can't wait to go on vacation with my sisters again!!

Sisters in San Francisco (cont.)

Dragon Gate in Chinatown
Day 3

The next morning, we were back at Cafe de la Presse for breakfast. (What can I say? Morning is a tender time. When I find a place I like, I tend to return there!) On this occasion, I had the lovely eggs benedict. (In a twist, I requested that they serve it on a split croissant. Soooo much better than a sad English muffin!) The three of us sat at the bar and thoroughly enjoyed our meal.

Then, it was off to explore Chinatown! We decided on a self-guided tour, and selected this walking tour from National Geographic. What fun! It was still early yet, so nothing was crowded. The tour begins at Dragon Gate, which is conveniently right across the street from the cafe. We browsed curio shops in the area, admired St. Mary's, poked through a kite shop, and gasped at the painted balconies at Waverly Place.

Then, we climbed three narrow flights of stairs into another world, the Tin How Temple. This small space is the oldest Chinese temple in the U.S., and it's fantastic. Bright red paper banners hang from the ceiling. A large shrine dominates the room. I decided to offer a $5 donation. For this sum, the sweet Chinese lady who mans the temple guided me through lighting incense and inquiring about my future. (Her advice to me? If you have a sore spot in your life, "Don't poke at it! Let it be.") She also gave me a packet of lucky tea to take with me. This was a stellar stop, and I'd recommend it to anybody. Unfortunately, they don't allow photos inside, so I can't show you what a beautiful and exotic space it is.

Three goofy sisters in Chinatown!!

We stopped by the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company and sampled crisp, warm wafers fresh from the cooker. Then, we picked up hot cups of tea at the Ten Ren Tea Company. We sipped them a block or so down the street at Portsmouth Square. I LOVED our tour of Chinatown and highly recommend spending some time exploring this part of town while in San Francisco. So unique.

After our tour, we were jonesing for some good dim sum. According to the internet, Yank Sing had a stellar reputation. We found it on Stevenson Street, and we were seated after a short wait. The place was PACKED! We got a table in the outdoor section, then selected all kinds of delicacies from the carts that rolled by - soup dumplings (OMG), scallion prawns, Peking duck, potstickers, and more. It was a delight! When we were done, we fairly ROLLED out of the restaurant! I'd give this place four stars for the food, but maybe only 2.5 for the service. The restaurant was very busy, and because we were in the outdoor seating section, the carts didn't come by as frequently. (I think it was pretty easy to forget about us out there.)

Waverly Place, with its lovely painted balconies!

Now, at this point, I begged my sisters to catch a cab with me to Fisherman's Wharf, our next stop. But they wanted to walk, and they were having none of it. I sighed and complied. So we set out on foot. As we made our way to the main tourist drag, we passed by a stairway to Coit Tower, which stood head and shoulders above the city and promised amazing views. On a whim, we decided to climb.

Oh. My. God. So many steps! We hoofed it up about 400 steps to the top. After a morning of walking (in LOAFERS, no less!) and a big lunch, this may not have been the best idea. Whew! BUT we made it! We were rewarded at the top with sweeping views of the city and the bay. Now, once you get to Coit Tower, you can also go up into it. However, there was a loooong line to do so, so we just bagged it. (Back down the 400 steps we went! Lawdhavemercy!)

Cont Tower against a blue, blue sky
At last, we made it to Fisherman's Wharf. I insisted on a quick break on a bench to rest my feet for a moment. That done, we saw the sea lions, browsed the shops, and danced across the musical staircase. A word - we visited Fisherman's Wharf on a Sunday on a holiday weekend. It was a veritable sea of humanity. Don't make the same mistake! We'd wanted to visit Ghirardelli and take the cable car back, but lines were long, and every place we looked was packed. (Plus, after a day of walking and climbing, we were tired.) After checking the area out a bit, we took a cab back to the hotel.

Day 4

Wine country day!! From the beginning, we'd all known we wanted to spend a day in wine country. After much wrangling on how best to accomplish this, we decided to book a private guided tour. Knight Wine Tours had an excellent reputation online, so we called Stan Knight, told him a little bit about us and our trip (what kinds of wine we liked, etc.), worked out a date and a time frame, and called it done.

That morning, we had a light breakfast at the hotel restaurant. Stan picked us up from the Omni at around 10 a.m. in a comfortable SUV. He had provided some literature, and on the 1-hour drive to Napa, we all chatted and enjoyed the beautiful scenery. Though it was still a bit chilly and windy in San Francisco, Napa was balmy, sunny, and in the low 70s. Our first stop was downtown Napa. We checked out the visitors center, talked to some of the tourism professionals there, and browsed the cute shop. Then, Stan took us to the gorgeous Trefethen Winery. This family winery is large and lovely, and the tasting room is in a fully restored building that's more than 100 years old. We admired the courtyard area for a bit (think fountains, arbors, benches, and roses), then went in for our tasting.

Trefethen Winery, with its historic facilities and lovely courtyard

The tasting room is lovely, and Michael, who was helping us, was so knowledgeable and friendly! His family owns the vineyard, and he's been working there his whole life! He was a veritable fount of information, and so charming. We enjoyed our flights, purchased a few bottles, and then Stan collected us for our next stop!

He took us to V Marketplace in Yountville. What a delightful series of shops! We browsed (and bought) artisan jewelry and gourmet chocolates. (The selection of goodies at Kollar Chocolates look like little jewels!) Having satisfied our shopping yen, Stan took us to our next stop - Bell Wine Cellars. Here, he'd arranged for us to have both a tasting and a full tour. We started in the tasting room, where we met winemaker Anthony Bell and saw the big vats that they use to create wine. We learned about the history of the vineyard and sipped some of our first selections. Then, it was off to the vines! Outside, we learned about vine health, soil quality, and companion planting. We also saw some of the machines used to process grapes. (More sipping.) Back in the winery, we marveled at the tall rows of barrels where the wine is aged and discovered the types of wines and grapes that produce the delicious wines they sell here. (Another taste.) We finished up by purchasing a few bottles, including a fantastic port that I've been sipping while eating squares of dark chocolate since I've returned from California. FANTASTIC!

Vines stretch out to the mountains in Napa Valley.

Now, as a rule, we are pretty cheap drunks. By this time, we'd drunk far more (and on fairly empty stomachs) than normal. I'd be lying if I didn't admit to being heartily buzzed. But luckily, Stan was already a step ahead of us. Before dropping us off at Bell Wine Cellars, he'd provided us with menus and taken our lunch orders. Once our tour was complete, we arrived to find a lovely lunch set out for us on the terrace of the winery, overlooking the vineyard. What a delight! We'd chosen big, bready gourmet sandwiches (the better to soak up all that alcohol), and they were delicious! Stan joined us for lunch, and we took our time eating, enjoying the yummy food and the beautiful setting!

After this tour, we had one more winery left to see - Goose Cross. We arrived late in the day, but the lovely English gentleman in the tasting area fixed us right up with glasses of rose. He then invited us out onto the positively magical back patio to sip and rest. The vineyard stretched out all around us, and mountains rose around us and the valley. The weather was perfect, with a light breeze. The vineyard's little garden surrounded us. We drank and laughed and talked and sighed and just felt lucky to be alive.

Wine happiness. That's what you see on our faces.
After this stop, Stan offered to take up by one more spot (Oxbow Public Market), but we were so blissed out and drowsy that we opted to head back to the hotel. He drove us there, dropped us off, and after tips and hugs and promises to keep in touch, returned the to valley.

Now, I'm not going to pretend that engaging a private tour guide to plan and drive for the day was cheap. It was a splurge. But, goodness, it was so worth it. We had such a fantastic time, and we didn't have to worry about a single thing. Stan handled everything, and he was a joy to spend the day with. Highly, highly recommended.

More to come . . .

Sisters in San Francisco

As an adult, I've been on a few trips with my extended family - the beach, the lake, etc. These trips are rather involved, complicated affairs, as we have a group of 12 that ranges in age from 3 years old to up in the 70s.

Recently, my two sisters and I convened to plan another one of these complex outings. As we banged our heads against the wall to find a destination, lodging, timing, and activities that would appeal to such a large, varied group, my older sister, Laura, all but whispered, "What if the three of *us* just went somewhere fun, and left everyone else at home?"

Grace and I were silent for one moment of guilt. Then, we hastily agreed. So began our sisters' trip to San Francisco. While both Laura and Grace had visited the city before, I never had, and I. Was. STOKED!! We immediately set about planning, mapping out must-see attractions, dining, and more.

Anguish echoes quietly off the walls
in cell blocks at Alcatraz.

Day 1

When the big day finally arrived, I got to town the earliest, around lunchtime. (Laura wouldn't arrive until that evening, and Grace the next morning.) First things first - I checked into our hotel, the Omni San Francisco. I booked this hotel because it got great reviews on Trip Advisor and also because the location is very central. The lobby is gorgeous, the staff is helpful, the rooms are comfortable (though we did hear quite a bit of street noise), and two on-site restaurants make a quick bite easy. After dropping off my bags, I hopped a car to Fisherman's Wharf.

I'd pre-booked an afternoon ticket to tour Alcatraz! Both of my sisters had visited the storied prison on previous trips, so they weren't interested in seeing it again. I, however, couldn't wait to snoop through the place. As I didn't have much time for lunch, I grabbed some snacks at Pier 33, boarded the ferry, and was off!

The ferry ride both to and from Alcatraz is a lovely experience in itself. You get great views of the city and enjoy the sea air. The ferries from the pier to Alcatraz (and back again) are large boats, and they are frequent. After a 30-minute ride, you arrive on the island. You're ushered toward a park ranger, who provides some general announcements to the group. (It's a good idea at this point to take a quick photo of the ferry schedule for the day. That way, you can be sure you catch the boat back at the most convenient time.)

Alcatraz feels like the island that time forgot.
The island Alcatraz sits on is actually quite lovely, and the former prison, employee housing, and other facilities spread across it. There are lots of gardens, many of which were in full bloom during my visit. The other thing that the island displayed in abundance during my trip were birds - hundreds and hundreds of gulls, cormorants, and other species. It was nesting season, and they owned the place - like a giant rookery! In many ways, Alcatraz is like the island that time forgot. It's largely taken over by flora and wildlife.

I took my time making my way to the spot where you pick up your audio tour. (This ensured that later, as I walked through the tour, I wouldn't be straining to see over the heads of everyone else who arrived on the same boat as me.) There's a quick orientation film that I stopped to view, which provides historical background on the island and is a nice introduction to all you're about to see.

I admired the gardens and views as I ambled to where the audio tour, which routes you through the cell house,  begins. On the tour, you see cells, learn about famous escape attempts, observe the warden's offices, and see where prisoners ate meals and received visitors. It's chilling. The cells are so tiny. It's hard to imagine the whole place chock full of desperate men. The anguish echoes off the walls a bit, and the solitary cells are positively frightening.

After turning in my audio tour guide, I explored more of the island, inducing the warden's house, some of the industrial buildings, the morgue and the bookstore. The parade ground was literally covered with birds. Amazing.

I caught the ferry back, sitting on the open, upper deck to enjoy the ocean for a bit. After I arrived back at the pier, I decided to walk back to the hotel to orient myself and see the city a bit. On the way, I stopped at Bocadillos (a Spanish wine and tapas bar) for a delicious dinner - a lamb burger with a side of Catalan spinach, washed down with a bit of red wine. I completely stumbled over this place, but it was a great choice! I sat at the bar and service was prompt and friendly.

Biking the Golden Gate Bridge with my sisters!

Then, it was back to the hotel for a rest! Laura arrived from the airport late that night, and we both slept gratefully.

Day 2

The next morning, we were both hungry! We decided on an indulgent breakfast at Cafe de la Presse, which was only a few blocks from the hotel. Yum! I chose the oeufs en meurette, a decadent concoction of eggs, mushrooms, bacon, and wine sauce. Oh. Em. Geeeee!! It was delicious and very filling! Laura had the spinach, feta and tomato omelette. Laura and I chatted, laughed, and drank our coffees. But this time, Grace was arriving in town. She dropped her bags at the hotel and met us at the restaurant, where we'd ordered her a filling breakfast sandwich to start the day.

I hadn't seen Grace in a while. She lives in Portland, Oregon, so we rarely get to visit. This is going to sound corny, but watching her smiling face come bobbing into the restaurant made me so happy! The three of us were together again, in a fun city! I gave her big hugs and kisses, and tears sprang into my eyes because we were beginning an adventure together.

Once Grace had a chance to eat, we were off on our first exploration. For that first day, we'd decided to bike the Golden Gate Bridge!! We walked down to the piers and found San Francisco Bicycle Rentals, which had gotten great reviews online. We'd pre-booked three reservations. The kindly staff there fixed us right up with bikes and helmets for the day (around $35 per person), and we were off!

It was an absolutely gorgeous Saturday. During our ride, we discovered that we were biking the bridge on the very day of its 80th anniversary! So cool! And because we were biking on the weekend, the ocean side of the bridge was reserved for cyclists. This meant we didn't have to dodge walkers and other tourists as we rode.

We happened to be biking the Golden Gate Bridge
on the 80th anniversary of its opening! Cool!

I cannot recommend this experience enough. The bike can be challenging (There were three big hills that we had to stop and walk up along the way.), but it's easily doable for someone in reasonable physical shape. There are lots of places to stop for a rest if you need one (including a great little park station just before you cross the bridge; we bought bottled waters there). And the ride to Sausalito isn't far - about 8 miles. You ride on designated bike paths for most of the journey, so it's pretty safe, too. On a lovely, sunny day, with my sisters with me, it felt like an iconic California experience.

We took our time on the ride, stopping to take goofy selfies and photos of the amazing views. (The Palace of Fine Arts was amazing, and piers/parks on both sides of the bridge give you gorgeous shots of the bridge.) When we got to downtown Sausalito on the other side of the bridge, we found a service that allows you to drop your bike off. For a $10 fee, they'll return it to the shop you rented it from, allowing you to enjoy your day in Sausalito (and your trip on the return ferry) bike-free. Sold!

After taking care of our bikes, we had a lovely late lunch at The Spinnaker, a seafood restaurant situated out on a pier and boasting lovely views through its giant picture windows. We started with a scallop and mussels appetizer, which was delicious. Then, I chose the angel hair pasta with rock shrimp, washed down with a beautiful glass of cabernet and plenty of water. (After the bike ride, we were all starving and thirsty!!)

Amazing views!

Our tummies full, we decided to explore Sausalito a bit. We ambled through the sweet little downtown, poking our noses into shops and people-watching for a bit. We picked up coffees and made our way back to the pier for the ferry to San Francisco. Because we didn't have bikes with us, it was easy to get a quick ferry ticket back to town, so we hopped on one. On the way back, we took amazing photos of the Golden Gate Bridge from the water. A quick walk, and we were back at the hotel, where we gratefully took a load off.

More to come . . .

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Toe-tapping in the Windy City (cont.)

Sunday - Day 3
The show room at Lincoln Park Conservatory
On Sunday morning, we decided to wake up with the flowers at the Lincoln Park Conservatory. After a filling breakfast, it was off to see what Chicago's green thumbs had wrought. We arrived shortly after they opened at 9 a.m. Admission is free, and there's plenty to see! The first large,  interior space is warm and humid, suitable for tropical plants. There's a nearly obscene-looking sausage tree there, in addition to tons of cycads (some older than the city of Chicago itself). We strolled through ferns and koi ponds, hunting for the tiny plastic dinosaurs placed strategically among flora that might have been around during prehistoric times.

After enjoying the lovely orchid room, we gasped at the giant blooms in the show room. This large, light-filled space boasted mounds of colorful hydrangeas, azaleas, hyacinth, lilies, and other flowering plants, nested amongst paths and small pools. Giant hanging baskets dripped flowers from the ceilings, as well. Loved, loved this space.

Amazing entryway at the Driehaus Museum
Still jonesing for more to do, we decided to check out the Richard Driehaus Museum, a private home that was purchased by a wealthy art collector, restored, and then opened as a museum to showcase some of his collection. Oh. Em. Geeeee!! Ok, Richard Driehaus is a very successful investor who has obviously amassed an incredible fortune. He's also a passionate arts and architecture  enthusiast. He MUST have more money than God, because this place is exquisite. Heavily ornamented and fully restored, much of the house features gorgeous surviving furnishings. Some of Driehaus' personal art collection of extremely fragile French posters (think Toulouse-Lautrec), hang in exhibits on the second floor, in what would have been the family bedrooms.

Amazing sculpture, fixtures, art, furniture, and architecture are on display throughout the house. This place reminded me a bit of the Frick in NYC. If you want to stroll around airily, pretending to be a rich, 19th-century banker, this is the place. As is so often the case, my only regret is that I wasn't wearing a sequined evening gown in which to be photographed on the marble stairs in the glimmering entryway. Tragic.

In the room where it happened . . . 
By this time, we were getting hungry for lunch. We decided to grab a bite at Cochon Volant, which was about a block from the PrivateBank Theatre (where we had tickets for the 2 p.m. matinee). As it was the weekend, the day called for brunch! I had the avocado toast and eggs, and I couldn't have been more happy with them! Large serving, delightful flavor, and completely satisfying! We savored our coffees before settling up and walking the block or so to the theatre.

Having purchased our tickets in advance, it was a quick trip to get into the PrivateBank Theatre lobby, then seated. I cannot tell you how giddy the audience was to see this show. I've been to a lot of shows. I've been to a lot of Broadway shows. But never have I seen the selfie madness that was the 20 minutes or so in the house before Hamilton! began. Everyone seemed to want to get a photo of themselves with the set in the background. Everyone was instagramming the program, the stage, themselves. In other words, folks, I had found my tribe.

The lights went down, the music came up, and for the next 3 hours or so, we all forgot every petty thing we'd been worrying about and lost ourselves in this production. It's as good as everyone says it is. The lighting is genius. The way the production uses minimal set and set pieces to greatest advantage is smart and tight. Performances are amazing. (Daniel Breaker as Aaron Burr is the deft hand that guides the whole show. Alexander Gemignani as King George is an absolute SCREAM! Chris De'Sean Lee as Lafayette/Jefferson worked the crowd. There isn't a weak link in the cast. Incredible, incredible work is being done here.) I paid more for this theatre ticket than I've ever paid for any theatre ticket. And it was worth every. red. cent. Cathartic.
The lacy light court at The Rookery

After the show, we stopped back at the hotel a bit to get off our feet. Then, it was dinner at Remington's! We trekked a bit through the chill to get there, then slid into a cozy booth. I chose the delicious branzino with a glass of red wine. Then, we *may have* split the skillet cookie for dessert.  Perhaps. Then, bed!! Aaaahhhh!!!

Monday - Day 4
On our last full day in the city, we took our time getting ready in the morning. We had a late breakfast at the hotel, then made our way to The Rookery for an 11 a.m. tour. I'd been wanting to tour this space ever since I read Devil in the White City, a riveting book by Erik Larson about the Chicago World's Fair and the calculating serial killer who worked its edges. If you do much touring around Chicago, you'll see this book pop up in all sorts of gift shops, and I highly recommend it. Fascinating. (FYI - I read a while back that Scorcese and DiCaprio have optioned the tome's film rights. We shall see . . . )

The offices of Burnham and Root
At 11 floors, The Rookery was one of the first skyscrapers in Chicago. Its architects, Burnham and Root, put their office space on the top floor to demonstrate that it was safe. The two architects went on to design and build all of the buildings for the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. During the tour, you learn about the building's history, including Frank Lloyd Wright's renovation of the building's light court entryway in the early 1900s. The knowledgeable guide talks you through subsequent renovations and restorations, and the tour ends in a restored office space of Burnham and Root's on the 11th floor. I loved this building and our tour, and you could tell our guide did, too! Such an amazing piece of Chicago history. The Rookery is still being used as an office and commercial space today, and I'm glad it's being preserved and enjoyed all these years after its construction.

We decided to go old-school for lunch, stopping at The Berghoff for weiner schnitzel! Service was quick, prices were reasonable, and we left with full, satisfied tummies! And we were going to need the fuel. Our next stop was the Art Institute of Chicago, and it takes stamina to explore a museum of such size.

After paying admission, we had about four hours to devote to it. Because we enjoy different types of art, we split up to maximize our time. I headed straight for the Thorne Miniature Rooms on the lower level. Such detail! Such craft! So unbelievable! While there, I also explored the shimmering paperweight collection.

Chagall's America Windows
(the theatre panel)
Then, it was off the the first floor, where I took in the Indian, Southeast Asian, and Himalayan collections before tracking down Chagall's America Windows and testing out the acoustics in the Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room (which I had all to myself). I admired the Greek, Roman and Byzantine art spaced around McKinlock Court (Hellooooo, Bust of Antinous as Osiris!) and tried to be really, really quiet in the Ando gallery before heading to the second floor.

Must-sees for me on this trip were Hopper's Nighthawks (contrasted with Motley's Nightlife, which hangs nearby), Whistler's Mother (which wasn't here the last time I visited), and Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. There was a new armory since my last visit (and you know how I love fancy weapons), so I checked that out, and I also spent time in the medieval and Renaissance galleries.

I'm not much for modern art, but I did swing by there for Mitchell's City Landscape. And somewhere in here, I accidentally stumbled across a special exhibit - Helio Oiticica. There's an Eden installation there in which you take off your shoes and then walk through a series of created rooms, over sand, water, rocks, straw, all kinds of things. You encounter small, private spaces, You brush against flora. You hear birds. This is totally NOT the kind of thing I'd normally do, but I threw myself into it and LOVED it. Immersive. Unique. Interactive. Genius.

Whistler's Mother! New since my last visit!
After spending all afternoon at the museum, we were POOPED! We decided to rest our barking dogs at Russian Tea Time, where I had the lovely fruited quail (served with mashed potatoes and garlicky spinach) with a nice glass of red. I finished up with a napoleon for dessert, then we called it a day!

The next morning, it was shower/breakfast/pack/fly, and I was home! What a great trip in a great town! I can't wait to come back to Chicago (though I WILL hope for better weather next time)!