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.

wine glass and menu
Food, Road Trip, travel, Wine/Cocktails

Luck or a Nose for Good Food and Wine?

If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you have probably noticed we often seem to find really fun and interesting places to eat and drink. This past weekend was no exception.

Friday afternoon we decided it was time, once again, to jump in the car early Saturday morning and hit the road for a day trip. New to Arizona, we have a long list of places we want to see in a day. This particular Saturday, with the forecast for the Valley of the Sun calling for high temps over 100 ˚F,  we opted to head for the hills.

Prescott is in Arizona’s Bradshaw Mountains and at just over 5300 feet, it tends to be a nice cool getaway on a hot summer day. Saturday was no exception. As our neighbors hid in air-conditioned comfort, we strolled the adorable historic city center under sunny skies at a pleasant 82˚.

Arizona wine region map
A state map shows the wine growing regions of Arizona

While hopes for cool temps helped choose the destination for the day, luck, karma or instinct had us drive right into the town’s celebration of “Territorial Days.”  It turns out Prescott was the capital of Arizona before it became a state and the annual celebration includes dozens of artists selling their crafts  on the town square. Families wandered easily past the displays. Children played in the grass. One vendor offered face painting. Musicians fiddled. It was a fun, festive party!

Wine tasting
Two whites and three reds are featured on the tasting menu

After a bit of shopping and enjoying the scenes unfolding around us, we saw a sign advertising “Wine Tasting. All Arizona Wines” pointing to the Back Alley Wine Bar. What a great find! Lindsay walked us through five wines from our new home state and dazzled us with her knowledge.

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The menu offers a refill as I near the end of a delicious red blend.

We ordered another glass each and continued to sip and share stories as other customers came and went.

As the time ticked away, our stomachs noisily reminded us we should eat something, so with Lindsay’s suggestion, we headed three blocks away to Farm Provisions. WOW! A robust farm-to-table menu enticed us with mouth-watering choices. We marveled over the fresh burrata on crostini with slow-roasted tomatoes and aged balsamic. 

Farm Provisions scallops
Farm Provisions scrumptious scallops

The farm fettucini with pancetta, wild mushrooms, Arizona-sun-dried tomatoes and aged pecorino was exceptional. The incredible day boat scallops were drizzled with a pomegranate gastrique and Arizona lemon beurre blanc while floating on a bed of butternut squash puree. Roasted Brussel sprouts, roasted baby beets and pomegranate seeds added color and perfect taste pairings. With our taste buds celebrating flavor perfection and our tummies happily full, we made a decision to schedule another trip to Prescott just to try the dessert!

As we drove out of town with the sun setting behind us, we wondered how we always seem to find these food and drink havens. Sure, we typically ask a local for options, but there is more to it than that. We asked each other, “Is it luck or is it some sort of nose for good food and wine that we are lucky enough to be blessed with?” Whatever leads us there, we plan to keep finding these amazing spots.

After all, there’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored … follow lady luck or your nose and go see, eat and drink it all in.

The World A to Z, Uncategorized

Travel is Personal

This headline may seem a little like a no-brainer to a lot of people, but I’m not sure most people take their travel personally. Here’s what I mean: I’ve been to Paris three times and I’ve never been up in the Eiffel Tower. Oh sure, I’ve been TO the Eiffel Tower, but not up in it. I didn’t want to go up. I also didn’t want to go to the Louvre. I’m not particularly an art lover, so why waste a day in a museum when I can stroll along the Seine or watch a street artist or simply sit in a café and people watch? All those things seem a lot more interesting to me than art.

I’ve spent enough time in European churches that they all start looking the same … stunning stained glass, astounding feats of architecture, majestic. Yes, admittedly, the cathedrals of Europe are gorgeous, but after awhile they just start looking the same to me. I’d rather find the hidden gems, sample the food, soak up the atmosphere of the town, not the tourist meccas.

That’s what I mean by travel is personal. Too many people cave to the recommendations of an author who writes about those things you “simply must see” in cities around the world. Those authors apparently don’t think, or live, like I do. I prefer to travel with a vague idea of where I’m going and leave much of my trip to chance. Usually in a week-long trip I only plan one or two things to see and leave the rest to chance.  If you’re the type who prefers a little guidance and direction, just keep in mind that these authors are writing about what they love. If you agree, their insight can be super helpful, but if you don’t agree, don’t feel like just because they are published authors means their suggestions are right for you.

That said, one of the things I typically plan is some sort of walking tour or half-day sightseeing tour. A really great travel agent who takes the time to get to know you before booking your trip can be the difference between finding the right “kick-off tour” for a vacation and spending a week touring sites that bore you to tears. My travel agent, Travel Planning for You!!, does just that. Micky knows the overview-style tours hit the highlights and point me in directions I might not have thought about. Tour guides are a wealth of information about their towns and can often suggest off-the-beaten-track sights that have shorter lines. Once on a walking tour in Prague, another couple was talking about a place called “Spa Beerland.” With a name like that, how could you not be interested? I asked about it, checked it out on the hotel lobby computer and made a reservation. It is still one of my favorite vacation memories.

When you’re planning your next vacation try to remember, travel is personal! After all, there’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored. Go see it the way you want to!