Fiji

The thing about going on a long trip is the anticipation of the adventure that lies ahead. I know our trip won’t be pedestrian or similar to any other trip we have taken. My husband Carl is an adventurer. Even at 74, he is very active and loves the thrill of winging it on vacation. So when our Aussie friend finally convinced us to visit him in Australia in October after asking us for 10 years to visit, my husband set about researching the Internet about where we could go to spend a few days to acclimate to the time change and avoid 14 1/2 hours in an airplane. I usually don’t get involved in the planning stage of our trips except to look at hotel pictures online and give my preference for one place over another. At first we considered the Cook Islands as a first stop then settled on Fiji. We found a resort online that seemed reasonably priced and it offered scuba diving & promised a relaxing experience. The name of the Eco-Resort is Papageno located on the Fiji island of Kadavu.

Papageno Resort
We arrived in Fiji on Saturday after a 10 hour flight and had 7 hours to kill in the town of Nadia (pronounced Nandia) before taking a small plane to the island of Kadavu & then a motor boat ride to the very remote resort of Papageno. When we arrived at the resort we were greeted by the Managers at the shore of the Bay and shown to our Bure which is a lovely bungalow consisting of an outer screened in Porch with a sink table & 2 chairs.

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The staff had prepared a welcome drink of coconut juice & rum laid out nicely on a Palm leaf. The inner room was a quite large bedroom, closet area & bathroom. Our room faced the Ocean & we could lay in bed & feel the Ocean breezes, watch the Coconut Palms swaying & listen to the waves. A fantastic way to decompress after a long plane ride. We were asked if we had eaten lunch yet even though it was already 3:00 pm. & told that there was a lovely Quiche prepared for lunch. We quickly situated our bags & went to the large community room for our meal. A long dining table was set up with Franciscanware plates & nice silverware. Our hosts informed us that all food was prepared from ingredients grown in their Organic garden & no sugar was added which was welcome news to my Diabetic husband. We had an outstanding meal of Green Salad with various dressing options, homemade bread, Spinach Quiche & Orange Juice. After lunch we met some of the other guests, a couple from Canaberra Australia who had been at the resort for 10 days following a wedding for one of their friends earlier in the week with 32 guests. Another couple who owned a much smaller resort was visiting from another Island about a one hour boat ride away. Evidently they come to Papageno to get away & get a social fix before they have to greet another guest. They only take one guest at a time.

My husband & I were very tired having only slept about 6 hours on the plane so after lunch we went to our Bure, took showers & both of us collapsed into a deep sleep for about 3 hours. When we woke up we joined the other guests in the community room for a dinner of fish, green beans & potatoes. Dessert consisted of baked Papaya, Mango ice cream & whipped cream. We spent the rest of the evening talking with our fellow resort mates & discussing our diving trip for the next morning. We went to bed around 8:30 pm still feeling a little jet lagged & slept until 6:30 the next morning. Upon waking, I grabbed my camera & went for a walk around the resort.

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What an absolute paradise! The property consists of about 100 acres and is situated in a secluded bay. There are large coconut palms everywhere and strategically planted gardens of tropical plants along pathways leading around 10 various size Bures or bungalows some of which face the ocean & some set back against the jungle including a 4 bedroom 3 bathroom large house for rent which is beautifully furnished in tropical style furniture & accented in the resort owner’s vast collection of African artifacts. There is a huge Organic garden with eggplants, papayas, pineapple, various lettuces, tomatoes, herbs, Mulberry bushes and many more vegetables & fruits. Rescue dogs of various breeds & ages roam the property & one followed me everywhere stopping to smell the fruit & marking his territory.

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Later in the morning, we convened in the community room for breakfast and were served a sumptuous variety of fruit & cereals, homemade cake, & juices. We were asked if we would like eggs as an omelette or scrambled. We learned a little more about the young Australian couple who had been in Fiji for 10 days & were leaving the next day.

Diving
After breakfast, we were introduced to our Dive Master Zacariah who explained our dive and where we were to go to get our equipment. We prepared for our first dive at around 10:00 am & boarded the boat with our wet suits, fins and mask. Our BC’s, tanks & weight belts were already aboard the boat. We motored out about 3 miles towards the reef & anchored at a Dive Spot named Fish Bowl. Carl & I geared up, took a few pictures & then back flipped into the water which was pretty choppy at this point because the wind had picked up. We let out the air in our BC’s & descended to about 40 ft. under the water. We saw many colorful fish, interesting coral & we went through a few tunnels. By the end of the dive, the current was pretty strong so our Dive Master signaled for us to go up. It was a bit of a challenge getting into the boat because the water was a little rough. While the dive wasn’t the most spectacular one we had ever done, it was pretty good for our first dive in Fiji. We decided to postpone our 2nd dive until the next day. We returned to our Bure, showered and took a rest until lunch. The next day our dive was much earlier in the morning & the water is pretty calm. We went to a different dive spot & this time we saw large schools of fish, & some pretty big Tuna.

We spent four relaxing days in Fiji & were totally acclimated to the time change before our next adventure in Australia.

Sicily

One of our favorite countries we have visited is Sicily. I really wanted to see it because my Maternal Grandparents came from there and I wanted to see the town of Alia where they met and married. To prepare for my trip, I took Italian classes at the local Community College for about six months so I could confidently ask for directions, find out where a restaurant or hotel was and hopefully track down some relatives with the same family name as my Grandparents.

We flew to Palermo and spent about three days acclimating to the Sicilian life and getting a feel for the country. Our hotel was located downtown and within walking distance to the Opera House, Teatro Massimo which seemed to be the center of town. We tried to see an opera while we were in Palermo but sadly there were no performances during our stay.

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One of the things that was immediately evident was how immaculately dressed up the Sicilians were when going out for the evening. Another attraction to see in Palermo is the catacombs where Capuchin Friars used arsenic baths and quicklime to preserve the corpses of thousands of Sicilians.

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After three days, we rented a car and we made our way around the island. We didn’t have any reservations, which is the way my husband and I love to travel. We were sure we would find places to stay whenever we wanted to stop and stay a couple of days. For the most part that was the case and we stayed in some interesting hotels and accommodations.

Marsala
Our first stop was the city of Marsala where we stayed for a couple of days and bought some Marsala wine which can be as fine as a top sherry or port. From there we headed inland to the town of Alia to visit my grandparents hometown. It was a lovely cobblestone street town and was known as a place that grows flowers. Maybe that would explain why my Grandfather became a florist. I went into a pub to ask in Italian if anyone knew of anyone in town by my grandparents name and I was corrected in the pronunciation of the name and told no one in town with that name remained.

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One of the things that surprised us about Sicily is the number of Greek ruins throughout the country. Many more in number and magnificence than in Greece. One of the largest ancient cities is in Agrigento and we spent a day climbing through the archaeological park known as the Valley of the Temples.

We continued around the cape of Sicily before heading north where we stayed a couple days in the southeastern coastal town of Siracusa. It is full of ancient ruins and beautiful beaches.

We then made our way up the coast and stayed in the little beach town of Catania which is right on the Gulf of Catania. We had an incredible view of the bay from our hotel.

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Then we drove to Taormina which is a bit touristy but interesting because from the ancient amphitheater, we could see Mt. Etna which is the largest active volcano in Europe.

Sicilian Food

If you are a foodie, you will find Sicilian food to be very interesting because although its cuisine has a lot in common with Italian cuisine, Sicilian food also has Greek, Spanish, French and Arab influences. Many of the dishes are prepared with dried fruits, olives, pine nuts and spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon.

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Sicily is a country I would like to return to someday and include exploring the surrounding Aeolian Islands. To sum up my favorite aspects of Sicily they are:

  • Breathtaking views of agricultural beauty while you are driving through the countryside;
  • Beautiful black and white sand beaches;
  • Fantastic ancient Greek architecture throughout the country;
  • Friendly and laid back people who make you feel welcome in their accommodations and restaurants;
  • Great food;
  • A country that is small enough you can drive all around it in a couple of weeks

Kauai, Hawaii

I noticed this holiday season that there was a lot of press about the Obama’s holiday retreat to Hawaii. The President is from Hawaii and so am I, originally. Although I have never been to the islands during the winter holiday, I have been many, many times and thought it was a good time to share my love of one of the quieter islands: Kauai.

The Garden Isle

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It is evident why Kauai is known as “The Garden Isle.” It is lush, tropical and green. It is a quiet island, more noticeable for what it is not than what it is. It is not the hustling, bustling Honolulu. It is not the towering hotels or towering anything. There is a building code that limits buildings to three stories. It is not a party mecca. It is not a city crammed on a small island. It is a beautiful natural landscape with gorgeous beaches, jungles and coastlines. It is an island of small, local towns where everybody knows everybody. It is a place where you never need take off your flip-flops nor wear long pants. It is a place I could see living out forever.

Where To Stay

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The island of Kauai has distinct weather patterns – the north part being much wetter than the south. The favorite place to stay on the south side of the island is Poipu Beach.

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There are many accommodations of many types: condos, small hotels, homes, luxury beach hotels. Our go-to is The Kauai Grand Hyatt which has everything you could ever need and is large enough to offer a range of arrangements and prices. It combines old Hawaii charm with modern facilities, numerous pools, gorgeous gardens, a luxury spa, sports facilities, beachfront and a central location. The service is impeccable.

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Resources

An indispensable guide to Kauai is, “The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook/Kauai Revealed.” It takes you to the noteworthy sites but also the less-known and unique places Kauai has to offer. From waterfalls to natural slides in the jungle, this book is a great investment in making the most out of a trip to this unique island.

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As a foodie, I would be remiss not to mention a truly noteworthy restaurant for this small island that could be put up against any worthy establishment in the biggest cities in the country: The Beach House. Consistently crowded (tip: you need a reservation) but always mind-blowing – the atmosphere literally takes your breath away. Waves crash next to you in the open-air dining room. The staff are quintessentially, genuinely old Hawaiian who know their food and their culture. The food is locally sourced and clearly indicated by boat, name and captain on their menu. And the food is not only delicious, it’s beautiful. My picture does not do it justice.

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Do Not Miss This Island

Kauai is a must-see if you are visiting the Hawaiian islands. It is the perfect antidote to Oahu, which I equally love. It is what most people who have never been to Hawaii envision. It is the place to relax and regroup. It is heaven on earth. Paradise.

Travel Books

At this time of year, travel is a double-edged sword. It’s busy/chaotic and weather-sensitive. For me, not inspiring.

Where I can be inspired is to travel through books. I recently read, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” which reminded me of my amazing trip in India. It made me want to jump on a plane and spend another 3+ weeks there, immersed in the people and culture of India.

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Another book that I received as a gift from my daughter was, “The Travel Book.” I love looking at the pictures and all of the places I have yet to go.

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When I travel, I like to read guides and novels about the places I’m about to see. For instance, when my children and I were on a road trip through the South, I reread and we all watched, “Gone With The Wind.” For my recent trip to Japan, I recalled the book,  “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Before traveling to India, in addition to reading Salman Rushdie’s, “Midnight’s Children,” I watched the recent films, “Water,” “Fire,” and “Earth.”

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There are many, many examples of how travel writing and films enhance our experience before, during and after our travels. However, they cannot replace the actual experience. Truly, the travel would not be the same without the supplement, however the supplement would never suffice for the real thing. Let’s get out there and travel and see our world in 2015. Bon voyage!

48 Hours in Madrid

We recently spent 48 hours in Madrid where neither my husband or I had ever been. After 2 1/2
weeks traveling around Portugal, we were feeling a little bored and were looking for an interesting city with great museums, good public transportation, since we were going to be carless, and some great food. So Madrid it was.

While we were still in Portugal, we booked a hotel online in the Salamanca area of Madrid which is where all the high end shopping is and it is pretty easy to get around the city by walking, bus or subway. We arrived on a Friday evening and left on a Monday afternoon.

First Evening

The first night we ate dinner at a local place we found by walking around the neighborhood. The food was great and a refreshing change from the food we had eaten for 2 1/2 weeks in Portugal. Mainly because of the variety of options we had to choose from which was one of our big disappointments about Portugal.

Day 1

The next morning after a breakfast of coffee and Omelette Espanha (the Spanish egg & potato omelette) at a Tapas Bar, we went to the Museo de Prado which is the largest museum in Madrid.

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After the Museum we went to a very crowded outdoor flea market and along the way went in and out of Antique stores. Which is something we love to do whenever we visit a foreign country because we have found some wonderful indigenous items for gifts or furnishings for our house.

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Day 2

The next day we visited the Museo del Sofia where the famous Guernica by Picasso is and afterwards, we visited the fantastic Mercado San Miguel, a gourmet market where you can walk around and look at all the beautiful food stalls and eat the most amazing Tapas for around 1 euro each.

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Homeward Bound

The next morning we flew home after a three week trip through Portugal and a short weekend detour to Madrid which made the difference for us from feeling bored with Portugal to feeling refreshed, well fed and cultured from our time in Madrid.

Planning An African Safari

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My advise to anyone considering a Safari vacation is to go with a reputable company who has a presence in the countries you are visiting. We used Kensington Tours because they offered customized private tours at a fairly reasonable price. We wanted to go on a private tour versus a group because we didn’t want to share our game viewing space in our vehicles with anyone and wanted the individualized attention. We also went in an off peak time, late November and early December when the crowds for safaris is really low. Which for us was a perfect time to go because the weather was pleasant each day, mosquitos were at a minimum, our accommodations were practically empty and everyone was very happy to see us. The places we stayed were Safari Lodges and Tent Camps. Both varieties were comfortable and in some cases quite luxurious. We didn’t stay in the highest end lodgings rather the mid-range options and the rooms, food and service was great.

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We were not aware that we could have flown into each National park we visited thus eliminating long, bumpy and tedious car trips. However choosing to fly rather than drive makes it difficult to experience the culture and see how the majority of Africans live. Most of the Eastern African towns we passed through were very poor with makeshift housing and stores put together with wood and aluminum siding, no sidewalks or infrastructure such as running water.

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We saw many women carrying plastic buckets that were filled from the nearest water holes and carried back to their homes. Men and mostly children would tend to the cattle and goat herds during the day while the women did the majority of the daily chores. The Masai people were easy to identify because of the colorful robes they wore and the spears that the men and boys carried. They live in primitive round or sometimes rectangular mud and cow dung huts with as many as 10 in a compound for one family.

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The men are allowed multiple wives and their wealth is assessed by the number of cattle, goats, wives and children they possess. Africans are easy to communicate with because they are taught English in the schools but talk Swahili amongst themselves. Many are knowledgeable about world affairs and are very interested in American politics especially because we have a President who comes from one of the 42 tribes present in Kenya. The other thing that struck me about the country as I drove around was how clean it was. Here are some suggestions for a pleasant African Safari adventure:

Use a reputable travel company that specializes in Safaris. You can contract with
Safari lodges and tent camps directly and they all have drivers and guides they can
refer you to but if you are short on time and want to have things in place before you leave,
it’s best to have your itinerary planned and arranged ahead of time.

-Take many small new bills for tips to your bag porters and waiters at your hotels,
lodges and tent camps. These people are very friendly and don’t make much
money. Porters should get $1.00/bag and five to ten percent of your bill is
appropriate for waiters. Additionally you can add money to a communal tip box
for other personnel.

If you don’t want to spend long periods of time in the car and you are visiting
multiple parks, consider flying to each park’s airstrip and either meeting your driver/
guide there or hire one at the airport. Internal flights can be arranged by your
tour company.

While visiting the parks, you are not allowed to leave your vehicle, you spend many hours sitting in the car while viewing the animals and then driving back to your hotel at the end of the day, so make time to do some regular
exercise during your Safari vacation.

Avoid the overpriced curio shops your driver/guide stops at for lunch or bathroom
breaks. Either buy things at the hotel gift shops which tend to stock a higher quality
merchandise or wait and shop in the main parts of large cities. In Nairobi and
Tanzania, there are Masai markets around town on certain days that sell all the
trinkets you find at large curio shops for about 60% less. Also ex-pat blogs are
good resources for information about where to shop and eat.

Winter Foodie Tour of NYC

NYC. Foodie Tour. Winter. YUM.

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For some reason, I have not been to New York City very often and I’m not sure why. But when I had the opportunity to take a short weeklong trip during the winter, I jumped on the Big Apple. For one main purpose. TO EAT.

Katz’s NY Deli

As most Americans know, NYC has some of the best restaurants in the country. And if you’re a foodie like me, you’ve got to get there and try some. The trouble was – which ones? One place we could not miss was Katz’s NY Deli. Famed to have the best pastrami in town, we were not disappointed. The meat was rich, fatty, salty and the rye bread was firm but started to disintegrate almost immediately. No time to waste! The decor looks like it hasn’t changed much since it’s founding in 1888 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which is all part of the charm. A MUST.

Minetta Tavern

Dinner our first night was at Minetta Tavern, just a few blocks from the apartment we rented through Airbnb. A hip oldy, worldy style restaurant, Minetta was packed, loud and fun. From classic martinis to roasted bone marrow to their signature black label burger with carmelized onions, every bite was indulgent, rich and deeply satisfying. A memorable meal in an interior so dark, no pictures survived!

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A different dining experience that was part snack, part meal was our charcuterie platter at EATALY. An emporium of all things Italian – produce, pantry items, bakery, butcher and cheesemonger – to gifts, wines and restaurants, EATALY is an upscale Italian food lover’s paradise. Be prepared for the crowds!

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Babbo

We had another truly memorable dinner at Babbo – Mario Batali’s rustic yet refined, much beloved Italian Enoteca. Seated at a beautiful booth with a view of the center of the restaurant, the dishes were familiar, yet with unique twists using seasonal and local ingredients that made them their own. We had the grilled octopus antipasti, which is perhaps the best octopus preparation I have ever tasted, and the pappardelle with wild boar ragu. Although the wine service was a little pretentious, everything about the food and atmosphere was superb.

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Non-Food Entertainment and Shake Shack

Although it sounds like it, I promise we did not eat the entire duration we were in NYC (although we tried)! We walked through as many neighborhoods as we could, though the snow made it a little more slow going. We saw a Broadway Play (“Book of Mormon”), went to the Metropolitan Museum (a first!), went to a Jazz show, did a little shopping at the Strand Bookstore, ABC Carpet and Home, Fishs Eddy, Henri Bendel and others. In between we stopped for a bite at the infamous burger joint, Shake Shack – waiting no less than an hour, in the winter, for a burger. It was pretty good – but coming from the land of In-n-Out, we’re pretty hard to impress!

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9-11 Memorial

A very, very meaningful excursion, totally un-food-related that made our whole trip was a visit to the 9-11 Memorial. We stumbled upon it while it was still under construction, but we were fortunate enough to see a portion of the museum and the beautiful monuments of the two towers.

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It had begun to snow while we were there, and the snow resembled ash – a surreal experience while wandering around the footprints of Tower 1 and Tower 2. We were so moved by the beautiful, haunting statements to the tragedies that took place there not so long ago and to the many victims and heroes honored by name.

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More Foodie Mentions

Some additional honorable foodie mentions on this trip included April Bloomfield’s, The Spotted Pig – a wonderful British gastropub that was perfect for a post-theater late-night eat. Our favorite bite from the whole week we had here – her famous deviled eggs. Doughnut Plant was a fun stop for unusual and square-filled donuts. And many food emporiums made our list, including The Plaza, Zabar’s, Citronella, Chelsea Market, Russ & Daughters, Grand Central Market and our favorite of all time – Dean & Deluca. We visited Dean & Deluca in SoHo no less than every other day and I still could not get enough of it.

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This place had my name written all over it and if I could have figured out a way to hide and spend the night there, I would have. REALLY.

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Every section and every case was spectacular. It took seemingly hours to narrow down what to take home on each visit. One of our favorite memories of this trip to NYC was a Dean & Deluca picnic we had in our tiny apartment, watching the snow fall outside and inside watching an important (to my hubby) British rugby match. Another meal to remember!

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There were more meals, snacks, adventures and sights that were too numerous to mention. One meal I can’t believe I almost forgot to relay was a lunch at the highly acclaimed seafood restaurant, Le Bernadin. Everything about this meal was impeccable – the freshness of the ingredients, the modern and sleek decor, the potential of seeing Eric Ripert emerge from the kitchen! I must say though, the experience was a little austere for us. Less relaxing and more formal than we prefer. But wonderful in it’s own way, nonetheless.

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I don’t really know how to summarize NYC. As a west coaster, a Californian – it’s a different world. But NYC does not disappoint. It’s a place unto it’s own. It waits for no one. It takes no BS. And I love it. I don’t think I could ever pass as a New Yorker, but I love to visit. Hopefully for longer periods in the future and at different times of the year. I LOVE NYC.

 

Thanksgiving Travel

Thanksgiving is the busiest travel time of the year. The Wednesday before the holiday is the single most traveled day of the year, followed by the Sunday after as the second busiest travel day of the year. It is estimated that over 40 million people will travel by either road or plane over this holiday weekend. Glad I’m not one of them!

If you are traveling this Thanksgiving weekend, here are some tips to make things go more smoothly:

When going through airport security, speed up the process by wearing shoes that you can easily slip off and carrying all of your loose items in a small bag. This will also help you not leave anything behind.

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Travel light if you can and use a carry on bag. If you’re concerned about your liquids and gels, transfer them into smaller containers and place saran wrap over the top of the bottles before you put on the lid. No spills!

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Bring your own empty water bottle and fill it at a water fountain after passing through security. That will save you spending $5 on a water bottle and keep you hydrated.

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Rolling up your clothes saves a lot of space in your bag. Get as much in there as you can. Use disposable shower caps from your hotels to wrap your shoes and keep them away from your clothes.

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Bring your own EVERYTHING: food, entertainment, reading materials and everything you can think of so you can avoid paying 5x their normal cost at the airport. Store them cleverly on your electronic device – from guidebooks to audio books, games to movies to maps.

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Get to the airport early. Get on the road early. And leave some extra time. Outside of that – put on your headphones and enjoy the ride.

Barcelona, Spain

There are a few places out of the many I have traveled to that are truly memorable. Barcelona, Spain is one of them. My husband and I recently traveled to Barcelona and Southern France and had a fantastic time but we were a little surprised about our food experiences in each country.

Barcelona is unlike other areas of Spain in many ways. The language is Catalan which is very different then the Castilian spoken in the majority of Spain. In fact the Catalonians really don’t consider themselves to be the same as Spanish. Catalan is a fusion language of Spanish, French & Basque. Likewise the food is a fusion of the three cultures as well. All over Barcelona, Tapas Bars rule the culinary scene along with restaurants serving Spanish Paella, Sangria and Spanish ham and cheese sandwiches. We found the Tapas bars to have the most creative menus. One such bar that we ate at twice during our 5 days in Barcelona was Tapas 24.

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It is a very small basement restaurant that by 9:00 pm has a line of people waiting out the door for a seat. The first night we ate at the bar where we could observe our food being prepared in the kitchen. Among the Tapas menu of the day and a standard menu of regular offerings, we ordered 4 dishes to share. One was a stewed Oxtail and white bean dish, the standard Pan de Tomate (toasted bread smeared with fresh tomatoes), Marinated Lamb Skewer and Potate Frites which is fried potatoes topped with a spicy sauce.

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All the dishes were enough for two people and we were quite satisfied. Our neighbor to the right of us ordered a dessert which she took one bite of and offered the rest of it to us. At first we politely declined but my husband’s spoon was soon drifting over to the plate for a taste and I finally succumbed and took a bite and was blown away at how good it tasted. It was a very rich chocolate mousse, drizzled with good olive oil and sprinkled with Sea Salt. We ended up eating the woman’s entire dessert.

Every day in Barcelona, we ate our breakfast and the majority of our other meals at the largest fresh market in Europe called La Boqueria.

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Inside there were fresh juices from every vegetable and fruit and fresh cut up fruit. There were a couple really good Tapas Bars inside if you happened to go at a time when it wasn’t so crowded and you could get a stool. There were vendors selling Spanish ham and cheeses, stands of olives, bins of nuts and dried fruit.

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Southern France

In France, we found the food to be standard fare, with the exception of a couple of outstanding meals. Each morning we decided to forgo our hotel breakfast buffet and head out to a local boulangerie/patisserie for a cup of coffee and a delicious pastry in each city we visited.
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For lunch and dinner I would research the internet to find where the locals ate and pick a local favorite which turned out to be a better strategy than relying on our guidebook recommendations.

My husband & I concluded that while we did have a couple of good meals in France, by and large Spain had the most creative and flavorful food. If you are going to travel in either of those places, I would skip the recommendations from your guidebooks and do some research on Expat blogs and local websites for each city you are visiting, for suggestions on where to stay and eat and the best things to buy and where to get them.

Austin BBQ Crawl

As part of our research on opening a BBQ restaurant, my Husband & I decided to visit Austin, Texas, considered to be the BBQ capital for Texas style BBQ. There were about 10 establishments that consistently came up in any Google search that I did on the subject. One that is always at the top of any list is Franklin BBQ, considered to have the best BBQ brisket in the country. I wasn’t sure before going to Austin if this was self-proclaimed or it truly was a fact. However we were prepared to stand in the reported 5 hour wait line to find out. We booked a trip for 6 nights to give us enough time to visit at least two BBQ joints a day and sample their menus. Joining us, was a friend of ours who we have designated to manage the restaurant.

We arrived in Austin in the early afternoon and after getting our rental car, headed to our first BBQ location, La Barbecue which operates out of a trailer in the Good Life Food Park.

la-barbecueWe arrived at about 3:00 pm and were told they were sold out of everything except chopped brisket sandwiches which is the leftover brisket from the morning’s sliced brisket offerings. We got our order and sat at one of the many communal picnic tables they had set up in the park and ate a delicious brisket sandwich. If was about 6 ounces of chopped brisket on a plain white hamburger bun topped with dill pickle chips and white onions. There were two kinds of runny BBQ sauce on the table. One was sweet and the other was a vinegar based sauce. The sandwich was delicious. Tender beef with some peppery bark scattered throughout. A good start to our research. In addition, the employees and owner of the place showed us around their smoking pits and explained how their briskets, ribs, turkey breasts and sausages are cooked and a little bit about the BBQ business. They told us that their Beef ribs are a specialty which usually sell out by 11 and if we wanted to taste the rest of their menu, we should pre-order a few items for pick-up at 10:45 am on Friday morning which we did. On the way to La Barbecue, we were told by our cab driver about his favorite BBQ spot and he assured us it was the best in town. The Salt Lick BBQ wasn’t on our list of must visits but after we settled into the condo we were staying in, we decided to drive out of town to visit this recommendation for dinner. Our drive was about 45 minutes outside of Austin to get to The Salt Lick in the Driftwood area of town, one of three of locations. It is truly out in the sticks among some expensive master planned communities and is about the size of a mini-Knott’s Berry Farm. It is designed for large parties and we were told had we arrived about a half hour earlier that we would have had to wait 2 hours for a table. We were seated at a picnic table in their patio area and ordered Brisket with a couple of sides which in almost all of the BBQ joints we went to, consisted of Potato Salad, Cole Slaw and Pinto Beans. When you walk in the door of The Salt Lick, there is a large horseshoe grill with a couple of guys grilling briskets, sausages, chicken and ribs and it looks impressive. But after getting our orders of brisket, we realized that the brisket we were eating was not smoked and wasn’t even very good. The sides were not even worth finishing. A surprising disappointment considering how our cabbie had raved about it.

The next morning was the only time we had to visit Franklin BBQ and we arrived at about 9:30 am and took our place at the back of the already about 50 person line. The line very quickly started getting longer and by the time the restaurant opened their doors at 11:00 am, the line was around the block.

Franklin3Once the doors opened, it took another 1 1/2 hours to get up to the counter to order. Visiting Franklin’s is a real event. You make friends with the people in front of you and behind you in line. People bring chairs and stream movies, listen to music, read or throw Footballs in the street while waiting. By the time you get to the counter you figure you might as well try one of everything on their menu because this is going to be a once in a lifetime event. My plate could hardly hold everything that I ordered but after the first bite of brisket, we understood why Franklin’s is considered the best. The meat melted in my mouth and took no effort to chew it. The bark was crispy and perfectly seasoned without being overpowering. Their Pork ribs were fall off the bone tender and the homemade sausage was divine. The sides were good as well. I never thought I would say that waiting in line for something for 3 1/2 hours was totally worth it.

Franklin2I also got my picture with Aaron Franklin who was very gracious and took us back in his smokehouse to show us his custom built smokers and explain how he cooks his meat.

The next morning we went out to Lockhart to visit three of the four oldest BBQ places in Texas. We visited Black’s BBQ and had some of their brisket and sides.

BlacksUnlike most of the other BBQ joints who only offer potato salad, coleslaw and beans for sides, Black’s offers about a dozen sides and desserts in a cafeteria style format. Although we rated Black’s brisket as a #3, we weren’t enamored with their sides except the Mac and Cheese. We didn’t eat at Smitty’s BBQ which was the coolest establishment we visited with their black walls coated by many years of smoke and the wood fire that fueled their smokers blazing away on the floor without any security barrier around it. We also went to Kreuz Market.

The next day we took a break from eating BBQ, and drove to San Antonio for the day and visited the Alamo and had dinner somewhere along the river walk. Back to our BBQ research the following day with a visit to Lexington to visit Snow’s BBQ that is run by a 73 year old woman Pitmaster named Tootsie. We didn’t think her BBQ was anything close to Franklin’s, La Barbecue or Black’s. Not very tender or flavorful. We then went to the place that most of the Pitmasters in Austin apprenticed at in Taylor, Texas, Louis Mueller where we had our second best BBQ of our trip and a lengthy conversation with Wayne Mueller, one of the Grandson’s of Louis who is the closest thing to a BBQ whisperer I have ever met. He was so passionate about his product, methods and the legacy of his family on the BBQ circuit, we left very inspired about going forward and seeing where this BBQ thing will lead us.

Mueller2After visiting eight BBQ places and eating at six, we came up with our rankings from best to not so good. Franklin’s, Louis Mueller, Black’s, La Barbecue, Snow’s and The Salt Lick. All the BBQ places we went to had some things in common. They all with the exception of The Salt Lick, smoked their meats slow and low in old fashioned smokers with Post Oak. They all had pretty much the same combination of sides with the exception of Black’s and they all furnished the eating areas in very simple decor. It is all about the meat.

We did other things while in Austin including going to the famous White Horse Saloon, driving out to the German influenced town of Fredericksburg and playing chicken shit bingo at Ginny’s Longhorn Saloon.

Austin is a fun city to visit if you like fantastic Texas BBQ, friendly people, great dive bars, honky tonk music and culture with a quirky sensibility.