Food, travel

A Tale of Cannolis

When I found out Greg and I would be spending a week in Boston, I started asking friends what should I see, do and eat there. I got a good variety of suggestions, but nearly every single person talked about either the North End’s Italian food scene or lobster and chowder.

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Boxed cannoli from Modern Pastry

For those of you who may not know, Italian food is my favorite. In fact, there is not even a close second. “OK,” I responded to the food suggestions, “what EXACTLY should I try in the North End?” The overwhelming response was, “Get a cannoli!” Then each person offered up a different bakery as the best option. A google search for “best cannoli in Boston” offered up a trio of bakeries, too. Faced with this dilemma, my choice seemed simple: Get a traditional cannoli from each of the top three bakeries and have our own taste test. 

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Bakery boxes are tied with string

Luckily, the day I snagged the cannolis I walked in, walked straight up to the counter at all three places and had cannolis in hand in short order. With my boxed and tied packages, I made my way back to the Convention Center where Greg was attending a conference. 

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Modern Pastry

As fortune continued smiling on me, I arrived during a rare break in his schedule. He was informally meeting with a pair of coworkers in the hotel lobby lounge. I walked up, got hugs from all three gentlemen and, grinning broadly, announced that all three were conscripted into taste-testing service immediately.

Hearing no complaints, I opened all three packages and we passed the cannolis around, taking big, flavor-packed bites of pastry and ricotta cream-filled deliciousness.

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Mike’s Pastry

The results: all three men chose the cannoli from Mike’s Pastry. This is, perhaps, the most famous of the cannoli bakeries and it’s fairly clear why based on the results of my unscientific study. I preferred the cannoli from Modern Pastry. I felt the shell was lighter and crispier. Mike’s, we all agreed, seemed sturdier and thicker. The cannoli from Bova’s Bakery was soggy. I had been warned to always get a freshly filled cannoli for that very reason. I didn’t specifically ask for one, so apparently got a cannoli that had time to lose it’s tasty crunch.

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“Mama’s” homemade cannolis

The following day, I had signed up for a food tour: “Boston’s Politically Incorrect North End Food Tour.” This tour ends at the home of our North-End-native tour guide’s mother’s house. Mama serves up true homemade pasta bolognese. Anthony, aka Flash, announced that “Pops” had whipped up some homemade cannoli filling the day before so we would also be presented with Mama’s cannoli. 

It was no contest. Mama’s was head and shoulders above the bakery versions! 

I believe one of the best ways to truly experience a place is through local food. Boston is no exception. There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored … taste the flavors as you go.

Uncategorized

Relaxing Isn't Just For Vacation

Sitting in a spa chair with warm water swirling around my tired feet, it occurred to me I don’t relax enough. My mind, like the water, was swirling around the word, “ahhhh.”  This luxurious last-minute diversion in our day, part of a quick three-day break from the daily grind, got me thinking about vacations. After all, they are for relaxation, right? As if we didn’t already know that, even the dictionary agrees: “Vacation – an extended period of leisure and recreation, especially one spent away from home or in traveling.”

Image result for studio m palm springs pedicure

But what about relaxing when you’re not on vacation? I got my first massage years ago. Eventually I went from about two a year to a massage every three weeks. When I missed one, my shoulders and neck would let me know. They would tighten up and remind me to get my knots worked out.

About a year ago my massage therapist decided he needed to do something different. I was CRUSHED! Just the idea of it sent my muscles into a tightening frenzy. I’ve spent the last year looking for someone to take Mike’s place. I’ve resorted to finding other ways to relax. It’s a lot easier to mentally relax when you’re not driving into an office everyday, so working from home is a big help. I get monthly pedicures — there’s nothing like a really good foot rub! — and Greg and I are a little more conscious about taking weekend getaways. 

What I’m trying to say is this: Even if you’re not sitting on a beach sipping a cocktail with a little umbrella in it, you can and SHOULD take care of yourself all the time. Find ways to relax. Take a staycation and order room service! Shut down your everyday brain and activate your vacation brain (the one that doesn’t spend so much time worrying about work and feeling stress). 

Take a mental vacation and dream about all the places you want to go on an actual vacation and create a plan to make that happen. There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored; you’ll have more fun if you’re relaxed while you’re away!

The World A to Z, travel

Q is for Queen of European Rivers … Part 2

The boat … or is it a ship? 

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The S.S. Maria Theresa docked on the Danube.

The boat … or is it a ship? 

Arriving at the quay to board the S.S. Maria Theresa, a couple of things become quickly apparent… most river boats (or ships) on the Danube look a lot alike on the outside: long, low and almost sinister looking with two rows of darkened glass, usually broken by the maw of an entrance approximately amidships. We quickly learn there are highly practical reasons for this look. One, there are A LOT of river boats on the Danube, which means they must often “raft” (tie-up alongside each other) at the quays, such that the passengers on the outside ship must also disembark through the other ship. Having entrances in the same place makes this easier.

The deck of the S.S. Maria Theresa as we approached a low bridge.

They are low because many just clear some of the bridges that cross the river. When on deck, crew will often lower sun awnings and implore you not to stand, lest you lose your head in a most unpleasant fashion. Even the pilothouse from which the boat is steered raises and lowers!

The common spaces were completely uncommon, with marble floors and walls, rich carpets and drapes. I’ll come back to those in a minute.

The marble bathroom has heated floors for warmth.

The over-the-top luxury continued in our stateroom. While not large by any means, the accommodations were sumptuous … Even the bath was all marble with top-of-the-line fixtures and floor heating. The darkened window opened electrically, letting in fresh air (our weather was unseasonably warm for October). Other staterooms featured French balconies that let the passengers sit outside on a tiny deck; friends we would meet later on the cruise opted for the suite, which offered a larger sitting area and bath, along with round-the-clock butler service.

Inside, however each cruise line brings its own flavor to interior decorating. Uniworld ships are among the most luxurious with a gilt-edged baroque style befitting the Austro-Hungarian Empress for which our ship is named.

Now, about those common spaces, there was a small gym and a place to grab coffee at any time on the lower level…you could even book a massage down the hall! Upstairs there was a large dining room and two bars (our kind of place!). The main bar was staffed most of the day and featured entertainment nightly. The smaller bar at the stern had more of a reading room feel to it, offering board games and books in a free lending library. Next to the bar was a small pool that unfortunately, was a bit too cold for our liking.

Let’s face it, one of the most important aspects of any cruise – river or ocean – is the food. Uniworld and the crew of the Maria Theresa did not disappoint!

Even the appetizers at dinner were spectacular.

Breakfast offered any number of American and Continental fare, including omelets made to order and a great selection of fresh fruit. For lunch, there was always a choice of at least two great soups, a wide variety of hot and cold dishes (with new varieties each day) served right – the pasta was perfectly al dente and meats were moist and perfectly done. And bread … there’s nothing in the world quite like European bread with real European butter!

Dinner … well, let’s just say don’t eat too much at lunch. Every night we were offered a chef’s choice of four courses, or you could order a la carte from an offering of meat, fish or vegetarian selections. Wines from the particular region we were sailing through were featured, described aptly each evening by the sommelier. Moreover, deserts were NOT to be missed!

When dinner was over, most of us retreated to the lounge to chat with friends, enjoy an aperitif, and listen to the excellent entertainment. Then, to bed, where the gentle lap of the water against the hull lulled us into a deep, restful sleep each night.

There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored. Go see it … from a bed with a view on the water!

Distractions, Diversion, Musings, The World A to Z, travel

Meandering … and Impatience

EDITOR’s NOTE: I wrote this several months ago, but recently realized it was never posted. The thoughts are still relevant, however. As they say …  better late than never.

I have come to appreciate meandering. For most of my life, nearly everything I did was rush, rush, rush. About the same time Greg and I got together, I learned how to slow down. Along the way, we created road trip “diversions.” As a reader of this blog, you’ve seen us write about these stops that are not on our plan, but rather something that caught our eye and intrigued us enough to check it out.  

The rush of my youth was great for me. I’ve never really had any patience and hurrying here and there is perfect for someone who just can’t seem to find a way to wait for anything. Yet, somehow, here I am appreciating wandering, lollygagging, dilly-dallying. 

Often, when we land after a long flight, we make our way to a favorite restaurant for a bite to eat on the way home. The fridge is not stocked; we are craving a little nosh; and friends beckon. 

Today, though, I find myself wanting to get home. My impatient inner-child longs to rush through the next few weeks as we make final preparations for our permanent move out west. I want to go home, get packed and move sooner. I’m anxious to start the next chapter of life in a new home, in a new world (the desert southwest), with new friends. I know the benefits of taking our time to get through this next phase. We will be more careful, forget less, be more attentive to the details of a cross-country move, but I am still anxious and excited. 

I like to think of it as youthful – a sort of childlike fascination with what’s around the corner – the same kind of sleepless excitement that you get on Christmas Eve when you know you will awaken to the thrill of gifts, laughter and joy. 

I laugh a little as I think of the memes about deciding not to adult – “I’ll be in my blanket fort with cookies and milk” or “I’ll be outside running through the sprinkler.” Waiting, planning, packing, counting the days – adulting is hard! The benefit is, when you’re an adult you know the reward at the other end with be worth it and the waiting and working for it make it all that much sweeter.

EPILOGUE: We have now completed the move and are living in our new home full time. The anticipation was, indeed, worth it. Everything I had hoped for is coming true and I find myself relaxing and enjoying a slower-paced lifestyle. Of course, I am also constantly looking forward to my next trip. After all … there’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored!

Food, travel, Wine/Cocktails

A Group Tour that Won’t Leave You Whining

Long-time readers know I’m not generally a fan of group tours, but exceptions can and should be made when traveling with friends or those with a common interest. Here’s what I mean:

USC DC-area Alums
USC Alumni Associated members at Gray Ghost Winery

Recently, the USC alumni association in the DC area (Greg is a member) put together its annual group winery tour in Northern Virginia. We’d been on one of these winery tours with this group and enjoyed it enough to actually sign up and do it again We even traveled back to the Nation’s Capital in order to participate!) Group tours of wineries, it turns out, aren’t like “tours” of cities or travel destinations.

This event gets you a designated driver (in a mini-bus) so you can sample the wines without fear of going too far. It gets you behind-the-scenes tours at wineries. It gets you discounted tastings and bottles. It lets you hang out with a small group of fun people who all have something in common – a connection to Southern California.

Gray Ghost Winery
Gray Ghost Winery’s owner shows us the vineyard

In short – it was amazing and fun!

The day started with a stop at Gray Ghost Vineyards. From the moment we arrived we felt like VIPs. The owner took us to the vineyards and shared stories of how the winery got started. 

Gray Ghost Library
The wine library at Gray Ghost Winery

We went through the wine-making process within arms reach of casks and steel tanks where wine was being aged. He took us down a small slope and into a door where we entered a grotto-like, dark, cool space. He turned on the lights and the entire group gasped — he smiled and welcomed us to “The Library.” It was an underground room stocked with hundreds of bottles on beautiful wooden racks. 

Narmada Tasting
Tasting glasses and wine descriptions are lined up for our group.

From there we moved on to Narmada Winery. As a reader of this blog, you probably already know Greg and I are members of Narmada’s wine club. We’ve eaten wine dinners in the barrel room. We’ve chatted and become friendly with the owner. On this particular sunny Virginia day, we followed our guides down the stairs to a back patio space to sample wines in the breeze and shade. 

Our final stop is a perennial favorite of wine tours. Barrel Oak Winery is popular among locals and tourists. 

Pizza at Barrel Oak Winery
Fresh from the oven pizza makes for a great afternoon nosh

It’s proximity to DC, expansive views, and picnic-like setting are family (and dog) friendly and festive. Barrel Oak offers stone-fired pizza in the summer. Our visit was perfectly timed for an afternoon nosh.

You’ve seen that Greg and I are wine lovers. We make it a point to stop and try wines almost everywhere we go. We’ve even sampled wines in an old converted church in Oklahoma off Route 66. Wineries can be small, newly-opened, quaint and cozy or huge, professionally-designed and award-winning. You can visit as a couple, with a small group of friends or on a tour. If you keep an open mind, it’s hard not to enjoy yourself. It’s a fool-proof way to have a fun day. 

There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored .., grab a glass of wine and toast it with friends.

Here's to wine tastings
Tour members toast the afternoon.

Fishing boats
The World A to Z, travel

R is for Richmond, British Columbia

The “R” trip will likely go down as the quickest to plan and one of the shortest. We moved across country in April and part of the move meant I am temporarily unemployed. That means when I get a new job, I probably won’t have any available vacation. So … when Greg found out he had to go to Seattle for a week of training, we looked into extending his trip a couple days and popping up to Canada’s Pacific Northwest … specifically, the Vancouver suburb of Richmond, which has been called the most Asian city in North America.

Gulf of Georgia Cannery sign
The welcome sign starts telling the story of the Cannery

There’s a lot to see in the Vancouver metro area and Richmond is the home to several cool sites. We started the day under gray skies with the forecast calling for a partly sunny and slightly warmer afternoon. We grabbed sweaters and headed to the historic village of Steveston. It’s quaint 6 block historic district includes a few cute shops and eateries opening up on the harbor.

Fishing boats
Fishing boats in Steveston Harbor.

Dozens of working fishing boats were tied to the piers; a few hearty souls walked along the boardwalk; and the chilly breeze had us pulling our sweaters tight as we walked along a path dotted with information signs touting Steveston’s fishing past. It dates back to indigenous peoples who have fished the waters for centuries. Steveston became the center of the canning industry in the 1800s. In 1894, a “monster cannery” opened its doors and became the leading producer of canned salmon in British Columbia. Throughout the next decade, the industry changed so much that the cannery eventually closed, but the building is now home to the Gulf of Georgia Cannery, a Canadian National Historic site and museum.

Can label display
Display traces the history of salmon canning labels.

You can follow the canning lines to see how salmon was canned and herring was processed. When we visited, the museum’s special exhibit traced the history of Salmon canning labels. What a fun and VERY kid-friendly, interactive museum. It was well worth the visit.

From Steveston, we drove to the International Buddhist Temple in Richmond. The website explains the “temple is not only constructed according to the traditional Chinese imperial style, but every structural detail and every object of art it showcases are also authentic expressions of impeccable Chinese craftsmanship.” The Temple’s stunning Chinese architecture and gardens are open to the public and incredibly peaceful. While there is a place to buy incense and souvenirs, requests for donations are conspicuously absent.

The Temple is relatively young (built in the 1980s), but is well-known as one of the most beautiful outside China. It’s one of the most authentic examples of the Chinese imperial style in North America and based on China’s Forbidden City. Take the time to stop and see it. You won’t be disappointed!

Lulu Island Wines
The wines of Lulu Island Winery lined up on the tasting counter.

We had a relatively short “things to see” list for our full day in Richmond, so we headed out to the final stop – the Lulu Island Winery. Tiffany explained the wine all comes from grapes grown in the Okanagan Valley.

Lulu Island Winery Totem
A carved totem with bottles of Lulu Island Winery wines.

Lulu is known for ice wines, but we sampled a couple of whites, a couple of reds and two featured fruit wines before sampling the four ice wines available to taste. The fruit wines – a raspberry and a blueberry wine – are made entirely from the fruit with no grape juice added. We were amazed at how delicious they were and laughed and chatted with Tiffany about how perfect they are for pouring over ice cream or making into sauces!

We learned ice wines are produced entirely from frozen grapes – picked and squeezed frozen – which means some grapes only yield a single drop of juice. Those single drops make some scrumptious wines!

LuLu Island Winery sign
The winery sign shows off the barrels guarded by a heron.

We left with five bottles of wine. One of them didn’t make it through the night as we grabbed a few items from a local grocery store and enjoyed an impromptu picnic in our hotel room that evening for dinner.

Richmond was a whirlwind to plan and experience, but it was fun and interesting, too. Planning and taking a trip in less than a month can be a challenge, but well-worth it! After all … there’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored … go see it on the spur of the moment.

Distractions, flying, Musings, Trains, travel

Travel … or Escape?

I am a writer and travel is my muse. Almost every time I board a plane or a train or even get into a car for a road trip my mind begins to work up some sort of story or thought. I have napkins full of scribbled thoughts. I have filled the margins of the magazines in the seat pocket. I even used an airplane “barf bag” once or twice to get my thoughts down on paper.

Flying soothes me. It’s uninterrupted time with my thoughts. No calls, texts, emails, Facebook, work, or any other distractions from time with myself. I read a bit, write a bit, and doze a bit. But, most of all, I enjoy the time to just think.

Sometimes my thoughts wander to my destination, perhaps something or someone I want to see when I get there. I’ve gazed out the window and written about something I could see — the sun rising above the clouds (or setting), the patchwork of fields below, the blur of trees as my train passes through a woodland.

Ahead of our trips, Greg and I always talk about what we plan to discuss in the air, instead we end up comfortably retreated into our own personal head spaces, while holding hands or leaning on each other. The fluffy bed of clouds outside the window evokes relaxation … literally thoughts of floating on a cloud. I love flying for that reason. Even when I’m headed somewhere I‘d rather not be, I find myself in a peaceful, contented cocoon of quiet. Airplanes don’t just take me to fun vacations; they take me above the heavy thoughts that surround me on the ground. Flying is an escape.

There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored … escape sometimes!