Tucson, Arizona: Exploring Saguaro National Park, San Xavier Del Bac Mission, and enjoying some of the best Mexican food Tucson has to offer.
Ever since my parents moved to Arizona to enjoy their retirement in the sunshine, they have been wanting to explore more of their new state. This year, instead of visiting them at their home, we decided to meet up with them and both explore Tucson, Arizona. We rented a VRBO house just outside of the city in the Oro Valley area–a very nice area if you are looking for some peace and quiet but still want to be close to all the main attractions. We visiting in April, one of the best times for weather in Arizona and around the time that we Seattlites are in desperate need of some sun.
Day 1: Road trip from San Diego to Tucson
After spending three nights in San Diego (click to read more about our time there), we rented a car to drive to Tucson to meet up with my parents. I’m a pretty big fan of road trips, an the drive was about 6 hours through the desert. However, there wasn’t much to see along the way and it was honestly a pretty boring drive. When we arrived at our rental house, we just ordered some delivery dinner and spent some time enjoying the evening with my parents.
The sunsets in Tucson are fantastic, particularly when accompanied by a prickly pear margarita.
Day 2: Saguaro National Park and some fantastic tacos
Saguaro National Park surrounds Tucson, and there are actually two separate parts to the park–one to the east of the city and one to the west. I had a few short and easy hikes on my list, but even though it was a cooler time of year to visit Tucson, it was already 85 degrees by the time we arrived at the park. We also had my parents with us who have some mobility limitations, so we opted for a short, half mile stroll on an easy paved path through the Saguaros.
There is no toll booth for entry to Saguaro National Park West, you can pay at the visitor’s center. The fee is $25.00 per vehicle. Rangers at the visitor’s center and gift shop are happy to help answer questions about hiking trails, wildlife, and any other inquiries you may have about the park.
The short easy trail we did was the Desert Discovery Trail, which is all level and paved and includes several shaded benches along the way. It is a perfect way to see the saguaros up close if it’s too hot to hike, or if you or your family have mobility challenges.
Note: Always stay on the trail as rattlesnakes and scorpions are often hiding under rocks. Always be sure to take water with you as well, no matter how short of a hike you are doing.
The huge saguaros are really impressive in person. It takes them about 70 years to reach 6 feet tall, and 200 years to reach their full height of around 45 feet. It seems that not one saguaro is identical, they all had unique shapes and varied amounts of arms.
After the little Desert Discovery Trail loop, we took a drive around the rest of the park and enjoyed the scenery.
We said goodbye to the Saguaros and headed into Tucson for some lunch at Top Chef finalist Maria Mazon’s restaurant, Boca Tacos y Tequila.
We enjoy watching Top Chef (it’s pretty much the only reality TV show we watch) and were excited to try Maria Mazon’s food after cheering her on while watching the show. We were surprised and delighted to see that she was actually running food out to customers at her restaurant! She even posed for a photo with Paddy, who was fanboy giddy with excitement. I think she enjoys interacting with her patrons.
As for the food, it was just as delicious as we expected it to be. We had to go with the Boca Balls (fried chipotle mashed potato balls), and the Pulpo Asado (octopus tentacles with ancho chile and lime butter and grilled green onions). We also tried a selection of the tacos, which were all fantastic. My favorite was the salmon taco.
Boca Tacos y Tequila is open for lunch and dinner, and has a full bar. They take reservations for parties of 4 or more. Don’t miss this place while visiting Tucson!
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the pool and ordered pizza delivery for dinner. Our VRBO rental in the Catalina Foothills was just too relaxing to leave.
Day 3: Downtown Tucson and a Disappointing Tiki Bar
We began our third day in Tucson by doing a driving/walking tour of Barrio Viejo, the old historic part of downtown Tucson. In Barrio Viejo, you can find some historic buildings from the 1800’s that are still standing from when Tucson used to be part of Mexico. Many of the old adobe houses and buildings are painted bright colors.
Per the Tucson Museum website, “The ‘Curse of The Wishing Shrine’ centers predominately on its visitors motives for their visit, and their own lives. It is said that if one visits with a clear open heart that forgives, they will pass, and they may even get their wish fulfilled. For others, it may just be the beginning of history repeating itself depending on what they themselves bring to the shrine. Also, it is said that if you light a candle at the shrine and it remains burning all night long without going out by sunrise, your wish may be granted depending on your motivations.”
Read more about the story of this intriguing historical site here.
After enjoying the historical buildings in Barrio Viejo, we ventured over to North 4th Ave, a neighborhood area in between downtown and the University of Arizona with a lot of fun shops and restaurants. We recommend visiting Pop Cycle, a shop with a lot of unique locally made art and gifts, Generation Cool vintage clothing, the Tucson Thrift Shop (more vintage clothing and costumes), Wooden Tooth Records, and Jellywink (a sex-positive adult boutique).
We were pretty hungry after exploring, and were ready to try some more local food. One of the foods Tucson is famous for is the Sonoran Hot Dog, a hot dog wrapped in bacon and dressed with pinto beans, tomatoes, onions, mayo, mustard, and jalepenos. We were told one of the best places to get these is at El Guero Canelo.
At El Guero Canelo, they bake the hot dog buns themselves. After ordering at the counter, your Sonoran dog arrives on a paper plate in a soft, pillowy bed of fresh baked bread with beans and all the fixings. An economical meal that is delicious and uniquely Tucson, a lunch stop at El Guero Canelo is a must. There are several locations to choose from.
Later that evening, we were excited to check out Tucson’s only Tiki bar, Kon Tiki. A historical hold-out from the mid-century Tiki heyday, Kon Tiki has been in swing since 1963, with much of the original decor and signs.
The Tiki decor and atmosphere in Kon Tiki is well-preserved, but they seem to have added some TVs and made it into a sports bar, which was disappointing. We were seated in a section away from the main TV area so we were content there. Overall, the vintage Tiki vibe is thriving here.
The biggest disappointment however, was the food and drinks. The drinks were sugary 1970’s or 1980’s era tropical. My Mai Tai was mediocre and sweet. The food left even more to be desired. I made the mistake of trying the macadamia crusted mahi, expecting something similar to macadamia mahi dish I’d tried at Duke’s in Waikiki. What I got was a piece of fish drowned in a very sweet, gray sauce with flavors that should never be paired with fish. We all agreed that the cook seems to be afraid of salt, and I had to ask for salt to try and make the meal edible (it was not on the tables). Paddy tried the katsu chicken and waffles (also a mistake), which was bizarrely prepared with a questionable bechamel sauce.
I really wanted to like Kon Tiki, as it is a historical relic of the Tiki era. However, I can’t recommend it and we definitely won’t be back. If you are a Tiki fan and want to go just to see it, I recommend sticking to beer and maybe just try some of their potstickers. Good luck.
Day 4: San Xavier del Bac Mission
A trip to Tucson isn’t complete without a visit to the San Xavier del Bac Mission. I had been once before with a friend on a three week road trip around the southwest in my early 20’s, and the second visit was just as magical as the first. Just a 30 minute drive south of Tucson, it’s an easy day tour.
Tucson and San Xavier were part of Mexico up until the Gadsden purchase of 1854. The Catholic mission of San Xavier dates back to 1692, with the current church building dating back to the 1700’s. It feels like something you would see in Europe due to it’s age and Spanish architecture.
The outside grounds are beautiful, but the inside is shockingly elaborate. Entrance is free, but check the website to avoid mass times as the church is still in active operation.
After touring the mission in the morning, we went a little further south to the tiny town of Amado to visit the iconic Longhorn Grill and Saloon for lunch. We were there for food, but the food is not the draw to this establishment. It’s because it looks like this:
The building dates back to the 1970’s, and has been the site of a bait shop, a roofing company, and a clothing store before becoming a restaurant. It seems to have had a recent remodel inside, and the atmosphere was nice. Menu serves decent pub grub and southwest fare. It really doesn’t get much more Arizona than a restaurant with a giant cow skull in the middle of the desert. It’s worth the stop for the photo-op alone, but the food isn’t bad. Just don’t come in a hurry–service is a little slow.
We spend the rest of our last day in Tucson enjoying our pool and relaxing.
For dinner, I had read that some of the most legendary Mexican fare in Tucson is served at the El Charro Cafe. It is at El Charro that the chimichanga was invented, and it is the oldest continuously operating Mexican restaurant in the US.
As we were staying in Oro Valley, we opted for the Oro Valley location nearby, instead of the flagship downtown location. The Oro Valley El Charro was disappointingly in a strip mall, and we sat outside with a view of the parking lot and a Kohl’s. The food however, did not disappoint. Service was quick and the meals were delicious.
A food that is traditionally Sonoran is Carne Seca, which is dried beef that is then shredded and cooked as a filling for tacos, burritos, enchiladas, etc. El Charro has many dishes featuring Carne Seca. Paddy tried the El Charro Carne Seca Burro, “elegante style,” and I tried the Sinaloa Shrimp Culchi (shrimp cooked in a creamy garlic verde sauce). My shrimp dish came with a side of nopalitos, or cooked nopal/prickly pear cactus.
El Charro is a must for a visit to Tucson, but maybe try and visit the downtown flagship location for better atmosphere. The downtown location is on our list for a return trip.
Overall, Oro Valley was a nice place outside of downtown to get a house with a pool and relax. Pro tip for searching for a house with a pool: If coming during a cooler time of year, check to see if the pool is heated or has a heating option (often for an additional fee) before booking. Many Arizona pools are not heated at all, and are a little too chilly to use during the spring and fall.
I would love to come back to Tucson in March when it is a little cooler and try some easy day hikes in the Saguaro National Park. We didn’t get to spend as much time there as I would have liked, and I have a dream of watching the sunset over a hill of Saguaros. We really liked Tucson and would like to spend more time there someday.
Long weekend in San Diego 2022: Tiki Bars, Balboa Park, Mission Beach, and a funky old mid-century resort.
We decided to take a quick long weekend in San Diego when looking for a little side adventure before meeting up with my parents in Tucson, Arizona for a few days. It is a quick 2.5 hour flight from Seattle, and somewhere I’d never been. (Paddy has been before, when he was 18 on an ill-fated road trip with friends, but that’s another story).
We chose San Diego for the sunshine, beach, and because it is home to a couple renowned Tiki bars that we have seen rave reviews on. We know San Diego has a lot more to offer and this trip only touched the surface. We saw and did what we felt like for the short time that we had.
Day 1: Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn and False Idol
Our flight was a bit delayed, so we had to rush to check into our hotel and head downtown for dinner before our reservation for drinks at False Idol. Fortunately our hotel, Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn was a short 10 minute drive from the airport on Shelter Island.
Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn is a resort hotel dating back to 1967. It is located on Shelter Island, a harbor neighborhood of Point Loma. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, all buildings on Shelter Island were supposed to follow a Polynesian/tropical theme. Many of these buildings have since been renovated or torn down, but Humphrey’s has been updated and still holds onto it’s tropical roots. There is a large heated pool that is open until 11:00 PM, a hot tub, tropical gardens including two resident parrots and a koi pond. Rooms are either pool view, parking lot view, or harbor view, with a select few overlooking their concert venue.
We opted for a “tropical-view king,” with a request for a ground floor room with an outside sitting area. Our sitting area faced the walkway around the pool and the view wasn’t much, but it was nice to have a little area to drink our morning coffee outside.
We dropped our bags off, changed clothes, and jumped in an Uber to Cafe Sevilla in the Gaslamp District. We love Spanish food and tapas, and had planned on a relaxing tapas dinner before our 9:00 PM reservation at False Idol. Unfortunately, by the time we got to Cafe Sevilla, it was 7:45, which was just enough time to order a shared paella and two glasses of wine before dashing out in another Uber over to False Idol. Reservations at False Idol book up way in advance, so we didn’t want to risk being late. The Paella was delicious, and we would love to go back and try more of their dishes someday.
False Idol is in the Little Italy neighborhood, and while it is a newer tiki bar, it has all the elements of classic tiki: Speakeasy style entrance within another bar (Craft & Commerce), classic 60’s exotica music, low lighting, tropical decor, and a drink menu filled with many classics. I cannot stress enough planning ahead and getting a reservation. They do let some people in for standing room, but I saw many getting turned away at the door. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Reservations are for an hour and a half, about enough time to enjoy two rounds of drinks.
In addition to all the classic cocktails on the menu (many I recognized from Martin Cate’s Smugglers Cove book), they had different house-concocted variations of each.
We tried the Victory on the Red Sea (a variation on Three Dots and a Dash), The Polynesian Forty-Niner (a variation on the Pearl Diver), Steve’s Rum Barrel, and the False Idol Old-Fashioned. All were top notch, very complex, and beautifully presented. When we first started getting into tiki, I wasn’t so into rum or “tropical drinks” as the ones I had tried in the past were sugary sweet, hangover-inducing horrors of the 70’s and 80’s.
After visiting Barbados and sampling some higher-end aged rums and the cocktails of today’s serious craft cocktail tiki bars or immersion bars, I have become a lover of rum. You won’t find high-fructose corn syrup grenadine or piña colada mix in a legit tiki bar of today. Syrups and liqueurs are often house-infused and only quality spirits are used. That said, they are pricey. Expect to pay about $15-$18 a drink. You get what you pay for here.
We can’t recommend False Idol enough, and will absolutely be back on any future trip to San Diego.
Day 2: Balboa Park, Mission Beach, and More Tiki Cocktails
We started the day by grabbing some breakfast burritos from the Pearson Deli and Fuel Dock a couple blocks from Humphreys. This little family- run spot is beloved by locals in Shelter Island, and has delicious and inexpensive breakfast sandwiches and deli sandwiches to go. There is a restaurant at Humphrey’s that serves breakfast, but it is quite pricey. We made coffee in our room and enjoyed breakfast on our patio.
We opted to spend the early afternoon at Balboa Park, walking around the area of the Spanish Village Art Center. The park is huge, way too large to see all of it at once, so we just walked around the Spanish Village area. Lots of museums, Spanish-style architecture, gardens, and pavilions with vendors selling food and crafts. The art center portion is full of little studios selling paintings, prints, crafts, and sculptures. The sculpture studio was our favorite–so many bizarre and unique sculptures.
The rose garden was also lovely. A great spot to stop and enjoy a fresh-squeezed lemonade from a vendor cart in the pavilion.
After a siesta back at the hotel, we figured it wouldn’t be right to go to San Diego and not see the beach. We took an Uber to the Mission Beach Boardwalk to walk around and check it out.
Mission Beach Boardwalk reminded me of a smaller, cleaner version of Venice Beach in LA. To be honest, I prefer the gritty, surf-hippy LA vibe of Venice Beach to Mission Beach, but it was fun to see. The Belmont Park boardwalk area offers rides and carnival games, including an old wooden roller coaster dating back to 1925 that is still in operation.
We walked along the beach enjoying the late afternoon sun, eventually arriving at Miss B’s Coconut Club for dinner and drinks.
A giant cocktail in a huge, solid copper flamingo? Yes please!
We ordered the “Havana Good Time” cocktail for two, featuring vodka, grapefruit, cucumber, and kombucha. Paddy was a good sport about sharing this with me, because I wasn’t going to let this giant, boozy flamingo experience go. The cocktail itself wasn’t too strong, and was surprisingly good. Well balanced and tart, not too sweet at all.
For dinner we opted to share the jerk chicken plate (house specialty), and the coconut seafood ceviche. Both were delicious. The chicken was cooked perfectly and fall-off-the-bone tender. There was a really nice veggie medley on the side that I wished there was more of. The ceviche was served with plantain chips, and tasted like a hybrid of classic ceviche and Tahitian poisson cru.
We had one more cocktail before heading back to the beach to watch the sunset–The Oaxacan Dead. Consisting of tequila, mezcal, pomegranate, cinnamon, falernum, and grapefruit juice, The Oaxacan Dead is definitely one we would like to learn to make at home.
If you’re looking for fun cocktails and Caribbean food a couple blocks off the beach, Miss B’s is a great spot.
We ended dinner at just the right time to watch the sunset before heading to our reservation at The Grass Skirt. It had been a while since I watched the sun disappear into the ocean.
First of all, I cannot stress enough that you should make a reservation in advance. This place is popular and reservations go quickly online. They release new reservations about 3-4 weeks in advance of each date, so check the website when planning your trip and get a booking if you plan on going here. Weekends always fill up quickly, you may have better luck on weeknights.
Second, The Grass Skirt gets the award for the best hidden entrance that I have ever seen. A trait of a great tiki bar is that it be secretive and special, without a view to the outside world. An immersive experience. Super bonus if that means the entrance is disguised! To enter, you go to the Poke shop next door, and check in with the host. When your table is ready, you are led through a door that is disguised as a restaurant walk-in refrigerator in the Poke restaurant kitchen. That’s right, you walk into the kitchen, behind the restaurant cooks, and go into the walk-in. You are then immersed into the dark, tropical world of The Grass Skirt. Genius.
We were seated in the fireplace area, which is open air while still being closed off from the outside. The tiki fireplace is an impressive work of art and ambiance.
Our server was over-the-top fantastic. She chatted with us quite a bit, and was very knowledgeable about the cocktail menu. We told her we had our own basement tiki bar at home, and she seemed excited to have people who really appreciate the drinks and experience of tiki. She even brought us a couple shots on the house in complementary souvenir shot glasses–“Johnny’s Bananas,” a chiled, house-infused banana rum, and “Batida Time,” a tequila guava aperitif. Both were delicious.
On to the drinks:
Paddy tried the Oaxacan Dead, a different version of the cocktail we just had at Miss B’s Coconut Club. I started with The Grass Skirt Daiquiri, which had Navy Strength Rum, pineapple rum, lime, and smoked salt. A fruitier version of the classic daquiri. The Oaxacan Dead was a very different, fruitier, rum version (as opposed to tequila). It was just as delicious, however I think I prefer the tequila flavor for this drink.
For our next round I tried the W.W.Z., with rhum agricole, pomegranate, lime, cinnamon, and absinthe among other rums and ingredients. It was complex and boozy, very classic tiki. Paddy had the Kona Old-Fashioned, a rum version of the classic Old-Fashioned: aged rum, macadamia nut liqueur, and Bittermans xocolatl mole bitters. This one blew us away so much that we went out and bought a bottle of Trader Vic’s Macadamia Nut Liqueur when we got home so that we could enjoy these in our home bar. The Kona Old-Fashioned is slightly desserty, complex, and buttery with an exotic twist from the bitters. Definitely recommend!
The music at the Grass Skirt was a little more modern (there was even a DJ setting up when we left). False Idol gets the edge as far as a classic tiki experience goes, but both tiki bars are fantastic. Don’t miss these on your San Diego trip–and be sure to make a reservation.
Day 3: North Park and Relaxing on Shelter Island
On our last day, we opted to take it slow and not attempt to do All The Things. We could have explored Ocean Beach, or Old Town, or checked out more of Little Italy and the Gaslamp District. However, we were on vacation and we felt the need to relax and enjoy life. We would love to come back and see more of San Diego on our next trip.
When I visit a new city, I try to find a fun neighborhood to explore with fun shops, record stores, vintage clothing, etc. It looked like the North Park neighborhood had a lot of those things. After breakfast burritos at Portside Coffee and Gelato up the street from Humphrey’s, we called an Uber to check out North Park.
To be honest, we found North Park a little disappointing. Many shops were closed and boarded up (pandemic casualties, most likely). The record store we wanted to go to was closed (despite Google Maps stating that it was open).
Artelexia : Shop specializing in Mexican gifts, crafts, home goods, and other fun things.
The Girl Can’t Help It : Vintage clothing and accessories. I’m not going to lie, you need to have a fat wallet to shop here. However, it’s a pretty amazing little collection and worth a peek if you like vintage.
Lucha Libre Tacos : One of two locations in San Diego, this taco shop has delicious tacos and burritos, and (dare I say?) “instagram worthy” interior. Hot pink walls and gold glitter vinyl booths? Yes please. Try the San Diego style burritos with French fries instead of rice for a true local experience.
After our jaunt over to North Park, we spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the pool at Humphrey’s.
For dinner, we had plans of checking out Mitch’s Seafood in Shelter Island as we had read rave reviews. Unfortunately, so had everyone else. The line was very long, and the harried staff was trying to clean up the dining area and convey to everyone that it was at least an hour wait. It was a little windy and chilly, and after one douchebag thought it was perfectly fine to be the “place holder” in line for his family of 17 who all showed up and butted into the line in front of everyone else, we left.
Tip: Go to Mitch’s Seafood on a weeknight instead, and maybe be prepared for a bit of a wait.
Not wanting to drop a fortune on dinner, we walked back and opted for a deck table at Ketch Grill and Taps. This turned out to be a happy accident, as Ketch had a very short wait, a beautiful open air deck with heaters and a nice view of the harbor. There were even some affordable menu options.
Paddy sampled one of their house-brewed beers, and I tried a pineapple margarita (it was delicious). For dinner we had the Ketch of the Day as a sandwich. This was a choice of three different fishes with several options of cooking styles, and two sides. For $17.50 it was an affordable dinner option and we got a great view. Just watch out for the seagulls–they are very shady and will try to sample an unattended plate.
We are excited to return to San Diego again and see more of this beautiful city. Stay tuned for the next leg of our adventure in Tucson!
Road tripping during COVID: Our two-week road trip through California. Touring the coast, the Redwoods, wine country, and the desert while social distancing and staying safe.
Cancelling our big 10-year anniversary trip to Greece was painful, but all things considered we have been fortunate (so far) in 2020. We both remain employed, healthy, and are able to work from home. We are counting our blessings.
Like many of you, we miss traveling. However, there is no way we are getting on a plane right now nor until there is a vaccine. Being safe and socially responsible are things we take seriously.
That said, we had two weeks of time off booked for September for our Greece trip, and a stay-cation just didn’t have the same luster that it used to. My parents had just sold my childhood home on San Juan Island, WA and moved to Lake Havasu City, Arizona in July, so we decided to take a road trip to visit them in their new house.
A lot of thought went into this trip and how we would keep ourselves safe. We came up with the following guidelines and preparations:
We would only stay in motels with outdoor entrances or Airbnb houses where we wouldn’t have to share hallways and elevators with others.
We brought our own pillows and comforters to use as hotels only wash the sheets.
We put together a cleaning kit with alcohol wipes, hand sanitizer, hand soap, and cleaning products to do a wipe down of high touch surfaces in our accommodations, and to wipe down any other surfaces as we travel
We focused on outdoor attractions only. No museums, restaurants, bars, shops, etc.
We brought a cooler and snacks, and picnicked, got takeout or delivery, or cooked in our Airbnb. Even where indoor dining was open again, we stayed out of restaurants except to pick up food.
We brought a plethora of masks (to coordinate with our outfits of course) and face shields.
Aside from store trips and doctors appointments, my retired parents had been social distancing pretty diligently as well, so visiting them was a calculated risk. It’s been a month since we got home, and no one has COVID so I’ll call it a success.
In addition to COVID, we also had the wildfires on the west coast to contend with. We kept up to date on the fires daily and did a few last-minute plan changes to stay far away from active fire areas.
This trip was a lot more stressful and less carefree than any other trip we’ve taken, but after 6 months cooped up in our house, we had to go on an adventure.
Day 1: Seattle to Crescent City
We set off in the early morning and drove pretty non-stop all day. We had one quick visit to my Grandma’s care home in Albany, OR where we had a social distance visit with her on the patio and ate our sandwiches that we made that morning. We departed I-5 in Grant’s Pass to the 199, passing the famous “Sweet Cron” sign on the 199 highway in southern Oregon.
I hadn’t made a reservation yet for that night, because I kept worrying that we would have to cancel our trip due to COVID or wildfires, and there seemed to be a lot of hotel availability several days before. This was a huge travel failure, as it was the Saturday of Labor Day weekend and everyone else apparently had the same plan. I reserved the last crappy room at the Crescent City Motel 6 for $169.00 a night. I’m normally a planner who books way in advance, and for Labor Day weekend I should have known better.
We arrived in Crescent City starving, and I also had the bright idea of getting fish and chips for dinner. Guess what? So did everyone else. We walked to Fisherman’s Restaurant down the road where there were quite a few people waiting for tables or waiting outside. Some people weren’t wearing masks at all, staff was wearing masks under their noses, and we really should have left and gone to the taco stand down the street. But we thought we might be able to just get a quick takeout order.
We were told our order would take about 20 minutes and would be brought out to us when ready. They were very busy and having worked in a restaurant during Labor Day weekend in a tourist town, I know they were doing the best they could. I can’t even imagine having to work in a tourist town restaurant on Labor Day weekend during COVID. Our food finally came out 45 minutes later, and it was a chilly walk back to our crappy Motel 6. The sunset was nice while we waited, but overall the evening was a complete fail.
Day 2: Driving the 101 through the Redwoods
We ate cereal and made coffee in our motel room, and checked out of the Motel 6 as quickly as we could. After yesterday’s travel fail, we were determined to have a better day. Fortunately I had reservations for the rest of our trip, so we had good accommodations to look forward to.
Before we left Crescent City, we gave it one last chance to delight us and went out to the Anchor Way jetty to see if we could spot some sea lions. Crescent City came through for us and there were dozens of fat sea lions sunning themselves on the docks. They were pestering each other and loudly barking and flopping about in big piles. It was amusing to see. The morning sun over Crescent Beach was beautiful, and we felt like today would be a great day.
The coastal drive south on the 101 was beautiful, with lots of beaches and rocky overlooks to the coast below. It wasn’t long before we made it to our first roadside attraction: The Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues at the Trees of Mystery. We did not tour the Trees of Mystery as it was Labor Day Weekend and we wanted to stay away from other people. So this was just a fun photo op.
Further down the 101 we pulled into Klamath to do the “Tour-Thru Tree.” There are a few drive-through trees in the Redwoods, some more expensive than others. Signs in Klamath led us to a small road with a pay booth. No one was at the pay booth, so there was an honor-system pay box requesting $5.00 that we deposited our money into and continued up the road.
The Tour-Thru tree looks like a really tight squeeze, so I got out to take a picture and make sure Paddy got the car through without incident. We have a Nissan Versa and it fit through just fine. Just go slow and straight. It was a little silly but a fun little photo op and break from the highway.
Just south of Stafford, the 101 splits off with a parallel road, called the Avenue of the Giants. This was the second time we had driven this road and it is something you cannot miss if driving through Redwood country in California. The two lane road winds through towering redwood trees, with lots of places to pull off and picnic, take photos, or just get out and stare in awe at these ancient, magnificent works of nature.
Also, there’s a giant ear of corn.
Our magical Avenue of the Giants tour was only slightly hazy from the wildfire smoke near Sonoma, and the temperature was perfect. Our stopping point for the night was Ukiah. When we got further south towards Ukiah, we stepped out at a rest stop and were hit by a 100+ degree heat wave. We were definitely heading into the lower valley.
We had a reservation at the Ukiah Quality Inn, which seemed to be the highest rated motel in the area at a reasonable rate. It was a refreshing change from the Crescent City Motel 6.
*Pro tip: not all chain hotel locations are created equal. I’ve stayed in the Walla Walla Motel 6 which was fine, and the Austin airport Quality Inn which was horrendous. Check reviews.
With COVID, 109 degree temperatures, and poor air quality due to the wildfire smoke, we spent the evening in our room and ordered delivery from Super Taco on Door Dash. It was excellent, we would definitely recommend their food.
Our Redwoods adventure day made up for our Crescent City travel fail.
Day 3: Ukiah to The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo
A few weeks before this trip, I was planning a re-route to avoid the wildfires near Monterey and Big Sur where we originally planned on going. Somehow I stumbled upon the website for The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, and wondered how in the world I had never heard of this place. It became a major destination focus on this trip. Be sure to reserve in advance, their themed rooms are pretty popular.
We continued our drive on the 101 south and opted to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, since we had never done that before. Had we not been in a pandemic, we would have planned for a couple days in San Francisco going to Tiki bars and seeing the sights, but we’ll have to save that for another trip.
The weather got hazier as we drove further south. We stopped for a quick lunch at El Pollo Loco in Salinas. It’s a chain we’d never eaten at before and we were impressed. We loved their salad with avocado dressing and the chicken was bomb. We had to eat in our car though, which was hot and kind of messy. Se la vie in COVID times.
After a long day we finally arrived at The Madonna Inn. I was so excited.
What can I say about the Madonna Inn? Well, it’s eccentric. It was built in 1958 by Alex and Phyllis Madonna, and each room has a different theme and decor. Phyllis Madonna loves the color pink, which is everywhere in the hotel from the mid-century style Steakhouse to the signature goblets for sale in the gift shop, to the signature Pink Champagne cake in the on-site bakery. Some of the rooms are also very pink forward, such as ours:
Behold the Carin Room:
Pink glitter wallpaper. Need I say more?
Having booked the room in advance of our trip, we packed some fun outfits because if you have a hotel room like this you HAVE to do a photo shoot, right? Right.
Paddy was a good sport.
Fun fact: The Grimes music video for her song “Flesh Without Blood/Life in the Vivid Dream” was filmed at the Madonna Inn and in the Carin room:
The awesome thing about the Madonna Inn was that all the rooms have outdoor access, so no elevators or hallways to worry about during COVID. Be aware that some of the rooms (like this one) are only accessible by stairs, so if you are mobility-challenged be sure to ask which ones are best for you before booking.
After checking in and doing our epic pink glitter room photo shoot, we put on masks and explored the hotel grounds. There were lots of signs around telling guests to wear masks outside of their hotel rooms, and most people complied. Check in only allowed two people into the office check in at a time (not a problem, no one was there when we arrived except the front desk workers).
Most people were wearing masks in the indoor areas in the hotel (bakery, main lobby and gift shop) but a few had masks pulled down under their noses and on their chins, and two ladies kept taking them off altogether. So selfish.
The Goldrush Steakhouse interior was closed for indoor dining, with outdoor dining open. We will definitely have to come back here after COVID. Those pink booths are amazing.
We stopped to admire the cakes at the on-site bakery.
We ordered dinner to go from the Gold Rush Steakhouse. The menu is pretty old style mid-century steakhouse, and nothing on there intrigued me, especially for the high prices. It was hot, so we got some salads and a slice of the pink champagne cake. I feel like dropping the dough on a full steakhouse dinner experience would only be worth it if you were dining in that magnificent steakhouse. We’ll save that for a post-pandemic visit.
The salads were not memorable, but the cake was. We ate dinner and watched a hazy sunset from one of our room’s two balconies and enjoyed some pink champagne and wine.
We also learned that glitter wallpaper really comes alive at night. It felt so fancy to drink pink champagne amongst all the sparkles!
Side note–the bed in the Carin room has seen A LOT of action. It wasn’t very comfortable. For the price we would expect better, and I hope they upgrade the mattress. Not sure if every room has an old worn out mattress or if the Carin room does because it is one of the most popular.
After the pandemic, we would like to come back and enjoy all the Madonna Inn has to offer–the steakhouse, horseback riding, and the magnificent beach-style walk in pool. But for now, the Carin room was exciting enough and we stayed safe. I can’t decide if my next top room choice will be the Hearts and Flowers room or the Blue Romance room. Stay tuned!
Days 4 and 5: Paso Robles Wine Country
The Copper Cafe breakfast looked expensive and boring, so we just ate the breakfast options we brought in our cooler. The wildfire smoke was pretty bad, and our car was covered in ash. We were headed a half hour drive away to a little Airbnb house in Paso Robles wine country, but couldn’t check in until 1:00. We decided to drive over to Pismo Beach to take a look at the California coast. But first, we stopped into the Madonna Inn bakery to get two slices of cake for the road. Their cake is out of this world! If you don’t stay there, at least stop by for cake.
We pretty much just got out of the car and looked at the smoky beach (it was actually a sunny day–those clouds are actually all smoke and ash). I guess at least it wasn’t crowded during the pandemic? I had a plan for us to walk on the beach and do a picnic lunch here, but it was best to not be outside breathing the hazardous air and it wasn’t much to look at with all the smoke.
We hit up the San Luis Obispo Whole Foods and picked up lunch and groceries for dinner, along with some local wine and headed to Paso Robles.
Our Airbnb house was adorable. It was a guest house on a gated private property, with grapes growing in the front yard, nice views and a pool. Paso Robles was a higher elevation than the coast, so we were able to get out of the worst of the wildfire smoke.
It was 95 degrees, so I went and took a quick dip in the pool. It wasn’t heated and was mostly in the shade so it cooled me right off! However, even in 95 degree heat it wasn’t comfy enough to swim in for very long. It was nice to read in the pool loungers, however.
After doing so much driving for the past three days, we were ready to have some down time. We cooked some delicious halibut for dinner and some of the Madonna Inn raspberry white chocolate cake for dessert and binge watched Netflix.
Exploring wine country
The next morning, the wildfire smoke made its way up to our elevation so my lovely day of sunning myself by the pool was not going to pan out. It wasn’t as hot which was nice, but it left us without a lot to do but hang out and relax. We’re good at that though.
If we weren’t in a pandemic (and multiple wildfires), I would have had a whole afternoon of wine tasting planned, possibly with a wine tour for safe transport to the many wineries in the area. I felt like we had to taste some wine, so prior to the trip I had researched some wineries open on Wednesdays (many are closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays), that had COVID-safe plans. We selected Niner Wine Estates. Their tastings during COVID are reservation only, are outdoor only with wide spacing between tables, and masks are required at all times except when seated at your table. In addition, they sanitize each table between guests, and have all the tastings poured for you when you are seated, so as to limit your server having to come to your table very often. All the servers wore masks.
We felt very safe. We were greeted outdoors by a masked host who offered us a welcome tasting of wine outside seated far from the entrance area. He took our wine tasting order (one white flight and one red) and once our table was sanitized and all our tastings poured, we were shown to our seats.
We chose the last tasting reservation of the day at 3:00 PM, partly because we wanted there to be as few people as possible, and partly because I had a lovely plan of driving around the countryside looking at vineyards in the late afternoon sun and taking lovely photos.
Unfortunately, the late afternoon sun/lovely photos part was ruined by the wildfire smoke. However, the vineyards were still pretty and the winery had very few people visiting.
We enjoyed the cabernet and the chardonnay the best at Niner, and bought a bottle of each to take with us. They had a nice looking menu as well, but we planned on getting take out in town.
We did a drive around the vineyards despite the smoke and back to town. It was really nice and we would love to come back and do wine tasting again sometime after the pandemic.
For dinner we got take out from La Cosecha in Paso Robles town. Outdoor dining was allowed, and restaurants had spilled their tables out onto the sidewalks and parking spaces in town to create socially-distanced dining. We still weren’t comfortable with this due to so many people walking by, some without masks. We ordered several small plates for takeout: the grilled octopus, the seared scallops, the fried “bombas”, and the beet salad. Everything was excellent. We would love to come back and dine in again after the pandemic.
Day 6: Long driving day to Lake Havasu City, Arizona
Thursday morning, we got an early start on the road for our long day of driving to my parents’ house in Lake Havasu City. The smoke was still bad, and got worse around Bakersfield.
We passed a really bad semi truck flip blocking the entire two-lane highway 58. I think we arrived just after it happened, traffic was beginning to back up for miles. I think the driver was okay, there were people walking around the crash outside on cell phones. Gasoline was leaking all over the road. Hopefully no one threw a cigarette out the window. Yikes.
It was a pretty bland road trip day overall. Lunch was a Del Taco drive-through stop in Barstow. Our one and only roadside attraction on today’s agenda was the Mohave Trails National Monument on part of old route 66, in the “town” of Amboy. The plan was to detour off highway 40 onto highway 66 and then re-join the 40 down the road, but there was a detour and we were directed straight off the 40 cutting over to Amboy on Kelbaker Road. It was an old, poorly maintained road through the desert which was a little nerve-wracking. I had flat tire nightmare panic the whole time. However, we were fine.
The Mohave Trails National Monument wasn’t much to see from the road. It was actually a nature preserve that is good for hiking and exploration with an off-road vehicle.
However, we got an awesome historical shot of old Route 66 and a rad mid-century motel and cafe. I want to come back and check out Roy’s cafe after the pandemic.
We made it to my parent’s house in Lake Havasu City, Arizona late that afternoon and spent time relaxing.
Days 7-8: Drive to Oatman, Arizona and some relaxing pool time
My parents took us on a drive on part of old route 66 through a winding canyon with a lot of harpin turns that was nerve-wracking, but beautiful. The drive took us through the old west town of Oatman, Arizona which is known for the wild donkeys that roam the town and surrounding area.
The town is about one block long, and full of touristy shops and saloons, and of course–donkeys. Tourists buy food pellets for the donkeys and feed them in the street, which keeps the donkeys coming back often for free lunch.
Unfortunately there were a lot of tourists without masks, so we didn’t get to explore the shops while we were there. We managed to catch a group of donkeys alone and got out to say hi. They were very sweet.
We spent the afternoon and the next day relaxing in my parents’ pool and enjoying some family time in their new house.
Day 9: Yucca Valley, California
We said goodbye to my parents and began our journey back west to California. Our last stop on the trip was an Airbnb house in Yucca Valley for three nights, which is near Joshua Tree National Park.
The drive from Lake Havasu to Joshua Tree was only about three hours, and we made it to the Joshua Tree area by lunch time. We stopped for lunch at Andrea’s Charbroiled Burgers in Twentynine Palms. Andrea’s had outdoor tables set up in their parking lot with canopy tents for shade. No one else was at the restaurant (from the dishes on the tables it looked like their lunch rush had just ended), so we decided to eat there. It was a lot more comfortable than trying to eat in our hot car and there wasn’t anyone around besides the two restaurant workers who were wearing masks. The burgers were good, I would highly recommend Andrea’s over the fast food chain options in Twentynine Palms.
Our next stop was in the town of Joshua Tree to see the World Famous Crochet Museum. Back in a lot by an art gallery, one woman’s crochet obsession occupies an old photo processing booth. It is tiny but amazing, full of interesting and colorful crocheted items. It’s free, but there is a donation can with a $0.25 suggested donation. I’m obsessed with unusual museums and this collection is definitely worth the stop in my opinion.
Our last roadside attraction for the day was the Desert Christ Park in Yucca Valley. The park is a collection of white statues of Jesus and biblical figures in the foothills of the desert, installed in the 1950’s. It’s an interesting and unexpected sight and also free to visit.
We arrived to our Airbnb in Yucca Valley promptly at check-in time, anxious to see this unusual house that looked so intriguing in the photos.
The house is called The Ancestor, and was built by hand with materials from the surrounding desert by an architect in the 1970’s. The house truly was a work of art.
The Ancestor had a pretty large plot of property covered in Joshua trees, with a large deck on the upper level perfect for having margaritas and watching the sunset. There was a shallow wading pool (not heated) in the front, and an awesome enclosed courtyard hangout area off the kitchen with a gas firepit. The house had so many interesting little details and the hosts provided extra touches like upscale bath products and incense. The house also has a hot tub in an enclosed sunroom area that can be opened up to the outside. It was hands-down one of the most magnificent and unique places we’d ever stayed.
We went into town to pick up some groceries for our stay, margarita mix and tequila, and some takeout BBQ for dinner from Dickey’s BBQ.
Not only was Dickey’s BBQ delicious, they were set up perfectly for COVID safe pick up. Their tables were arranged in a square in the center of the restaurant, with direction for one way in and one way out, as well as 6 ft spacing signs for waiting in line. The staff wore masks and once we paid, they directed us to sit on the side bench to wait, and then deposited our order on the table instead of handing to us to maintain social distancing. We highly recommend their ribs and the turkey.
We spent the evening enjoying margaritas from the deck of The Ancestor and watching the sunset.
Days 10-11: Cabazon Dinosaurs and Yucca Valley relaxation
Our main intention in Yucca Valley was to get some sunshine and relaxation in before heading back to the rainy Seattle weather and an indefinite amount of quarantine in our house. However, we decided to get one more COVID-safe excursion in: The Cabazon Dinosaurs.
The Cabazon Dinosaurs is more of a roadside photo-op than anything else, and at $13 per person the park was a little small. You can walk through it in 15 minutes. However, it is all outdoors, and masks and social distancing were required. The giant T-Rex in the front of the park that you can see from the road has a stairwell up to a lookout from his mouth. We didn’t do that though, as we didn’t know if we would have to pass other people or be in a tight space with people.
Overall, it was a fun little excursion and provided for some great photos.
We spent the rest of the day and the next day relaxing on the property, getting some sun in the splash pool, and enjoying the desert before our drive home.
Quick tip about Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley: It is consistently 10 degrees cooler in Joshua Tree and the high desert than down in Palm Springs. The temperature stayed at 95 while Palm Springs was over 100 when we were there.
In addition, the wildfire smoke was much worse in the lower elevation areas in and around Palm Springs. We had almost booked a house with a pool in Palm Springs but were really glad we didn’t. The air was a bit hazy in Yucca Valley but the higher elevation kept it from being really bad.
Days 12-13: Long, smoky drive home
The wildfires in Oregon were really bad while we were on this trip, and there were large fires up and down the I-5 corridor through Oregon, causing hazardous smoke. In addition, many hotels were occupied by wildfire evacuees. We decided the best thing to do would be to drive home in two days instead of three, which meant 11 hours per day of driving, but no stops in fire-ravaged Oregon.
Our first day we drove from Yucca Valley to Redding, California. It was a pretty long, brutal day. We managed to make one roadside attraction stop at the giant olive in Corning, CA:
We rolled into the Thunderbird Lodge in Redding, CA tired and hungry. The Thunderbird Lodge is a re-vamped vintage motor lodge. It was average and clean.
Northern California was allowing dining in restaurants, and restaurants and bars were packed with people not wearing masks. I stopped at a Japanese restaurant nearby to try and order something to go, but left immediately after a large group of people without any masks whatsoever walked in and stood right next to me.
We ended up getting some gross takeout salads from a bar near the motel, getting side-eye glances from anti-maskers in the bar when we asked to wait for our food outside.
The next morning, we hit a Starbucks drive through (masks worn), but noticed customers not doing the Starbucks employees the courtesy of wearing masks at the drive through. We made one final stop in Redding before hitting the road at a gas station to fuel up and get some ice. There was a large “masks required” sign on the door to the gas station, but the two employees inside were not wearing masks, nor was the customer who walked in while I was in there. Overall, Redding was a pretty bad experience.
The drive through Oregon was so smoky we had to wear our masks inside the car for parts of the drive near Roseburg and Eugene areas. It was sad to see some neighborhoods demolished by fire from the freeway, and large portions of scorched land. I felt so sad for all the people affected by the fire. Businesses and homes lost, animals and even some human fatalities.
We were so happy to have been able to get out and get in a travel adventure this year. We miss traveling a lot, but we won’t be getting back on a plane until there is a vaccine or the virus is down to a dull whisper. This trip gave us lots of ideas of things we want to come back and see in California post-pandemic. We definitely will be visiting the Madonna Inn again, and we would love to spend some time in San Francisco and LA.
Stay safe out there. Mask up and protect your community. We will get through this.
One week in Portugal in November: Lisbon, Sintra, Evora, and a wine tour in the Setubal Peninsula. Crazy castles, a cathedral made of human bones, delicious food and wine, and beautiful historic architecture.
We have several friends who have done a big trip around Spain and Portugal, or Spain, Portugal, and Morocco, etc. All of them spent most of their time in Spain, and allowed just a couple days for a stop in Portugal. All of them came back saying they wished they had spent way more time in Portugal.
We were looking for somewhere to go for a one week trip over Thanksgiving week, and Portugal’s food, low prices, and gorgeous historical buildings lured us in. There aren’t any direct flights to Portugal from Seattle, but it was 100% worth the layover and a little extra travel time . Portugal is one of the most affordable countries in Western Europe–we got a great apartment on HomeAway for only $66.00 USD per night. The food was some of the best we’ve ever had, and everyone was really friendly. English is widely spoken and we had no trouble getting around. If you know some Spanish you will be able to decipher some of the signs and restaurant menus that are in Portuguese, and some phrases and words are similar to Spanish. Don’t try to speak Spanish though, most people we met spoke English as a second language over Spanish.
If you are visiting Lisbon or Sintra, you should be prepared for the hills. If Google Maps tells you your route in Lisbon is “mostly flat,” it’s lying. What it means is that your route goes up and down like a roller coaster, including one or two blocks with the steepest hill you’ve ever climbed in your life. If you’re not good with lots of hiking, don’t stress. Uber is available in both Lisbon and Sintra and is really affordable. There were several times when we were tired and called an Uber back to our apartment from wherever we were in the city, and the cost was only $3.00 USD. If you are in good shape to walk, then it just means you can justify eating more pasteis de nata.
Day 1: Arriving in Lisbon
We took an overnight flight from Seattle to Amsterdam with Delta, and then had a short 2.5 hour flight with KLM from Amsterdam to Lisbon, arriving Friday afternoon.
One thing that made the 10 hour flight from Seattle to Amsterdam tolerable was getting to see the northern lights over Canada from the plane! Horrible photo, I know. It doesn’t nearly do it justice for how gorgeous it was.
For our arrival in Lisbon, we had arranged for an airport pick up with Welcome Pickups, which from my research was only a tiny bit more than getting a taxi, and delivered door to door service. We were even able to share our pick up with our apartment host so that they would get a notification when we were picked up and could track us on the way to the apartment. Our driver was there waiting for us when we got out of customs and everything went really smoothly.
Our apartment was on the third floor of a very classic building on a small street in The Santa Catarina neighborhood. It had a fantastic view.
We really liked the Santa Catarina neighborhood. It is very close to Bairro Alto, the nightlife district but far enough away to be quiet. It also felt pretty local and wasn’t as touristy as the historic Afalma neighboorhood.
After we checked in and unpacked, it was time to venture out to find sustenance. It was 5:00, so a bit early for dinner by Portuguese standards (most restaurants open for dinner at 7:00 pm and people often don’t go out to eat until 8:00 or 9:00). We had read about Time Out Market which was only a short walk away from our apartment, and it sounded like a perfect way to get an introduction to Portuguese food.
Time Out Market is a large and busy market full of many food stalls, wine shops, flower vendors, bakery stalls, etc. During the day there is a food market side as well. Many of the reviews I read about Time Out Market said it was touristy and expensive. It is. However, expensive for Lisbon basically meant that the prices were comparable to Seattle. In addition, the market has many food stalls from Lisbon’s top-rated chefs to give you a quick and less expensive sampling of their cuisine. All the food looked amazing.
After doing a loop around the busy market looking at all the food stalls, we pulled up a stool at Sea Me, as I was lured in by their octopus hot dog.
The octopus hot dog was two perfectly cooked octopus tentacles on a bun, with lettuce, tomato, and garlic sauce. It was delicious. Paddy had a salmon dish that was also outstanding.
As much as we wanted to eat everything in the market, we only had room for one more small thing after that, so we tried some croquettes and beers at the Croqueteria, which were also delicious.
Not sure what to do for breakfast the next morning, we picked up 6 mini pies from Chef, a stall in the center of the market (they were amazing).
We ended our tour of Time Out Market with some wine tasting at a little wine shop and bought a bottle of wine to take back to the apartment. Lack of sleep and jet lag were taking their tolls, so we made it an early night.
Day 2: Exploring Castelo de Sao Jorge and the historic Afalma neighborhood
After a full night’s sleep and eating our mini pies, we ventured out and found some excellent coffee around the corner from our apartment at The Mill.
Once we were fully caffeinated, we called an Uber to Castelo de Sao Jorge, one of the largest tourist attractions in Lisbon.
It was recommended in online forums that I read to Uber to the castle, tour it first thing in the morning, and then explore the historic Afalma neighborhood below (walking downhill). I would whole-heartedly second that recommendation. Uber was really inexpensive (only $2-$7 USD per ride just about anywhere we wanted to go in the city), and it’s best to explore the City of the Seven Hills by starting at the top of a hill, and working your way down.
Castelo de Sao Jorge has had a long and interesting history. The Castle was originally built by the Romans in 200 BC, later occupied by the Visigoths between 480-714 BC, and then the Moors from North Africa from 714-1147. It was later taken over during the Christian Crusades, and became a power stronghold for Portugal through the middle ages. In 1755 it was destroyed by the big earthquake in Lisbon and wasn’t restored until 1938.
Admission is €10 per adult, and most of your visit to the castle will be exploring the exterior grounds. There is an interior area that has been turned into a museum with excavated pottery and other items from throughout the castle’s history, Roman times to the middle ages.
There is a great view of the city from the castle, and a family of peacocks roaming the grounds.
After exploring the castle, we walked into the Afalma neighborhood, which is the oldest part of Lisbon. This is the only area in Lisbon that remained mostly intact after the 1755 earthquake leveled the city. It is a labyrinth of narrow winding streets with azulejo-tiled buildings and cobblestones.
We stopped by the Fiera da Ladra flea market (also called the Theives Market), which is only open on Saturdays and Tuesdays. It was fun to walk through, but I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to see it.
For lunch we found a fantastic tapas restaurant in a little alley in Afalma called O Cantinho da Rute. When we asked the owner what he recommended, he said “everything.” While that didn’t help us narrow down our selections, he wasn’t lying. Everything we ordered was fantastic. We had dish with sliced potatoes and hard-boiled eggs with paprika, garbonzo beans with chorizo in a paprika sauce, and prawns drenched in garlic paprika butter. I think they just have a vat of clarified garlic paprika butter in the kitchen that they ladle onto everything. Get bread to mop it up, it is delicious.
For dessert we tried the Portuguese ginjinha, a liqueur infused with sour cherries. It was served in a small cup made of chocolate. Most restaurants have ginjinha, or you can find small places serving it from a tiny counter bar off the street. Be sure to order some with dessert, or any time. The Portuguese even drink it in the morning.
After lunch, we walked until we got to the Se Cathedral, another one of the big tourist attractions in Afalma. Entrance is free, but be respectful if there is a service taking place, and be sure you are modestly dressed. The cathedral dates back to the 12th century.
When we got out of the Se, it was starting to rain and we were tired. We called an Uber to take us back to the apartment, which only cost €2.50.
That evening Paddy wanted to find some rock bars to have a drink at. It was really early at 6:00 PM, and not much in Bairro Alto was open yet. We stopped into a tapas bar for a cocktail, then found The Cave. We were the only customers at such a premature hour. Punk music was playing, and they had mediocre sangria. Goths, punks, and metal heads may feel at home here.
We walked around Bairro Alto looking at restaurant menus and finally decided on Cervejaria do Bairro. I tried a traditional Portuguese bacalhau dish (salted cod) with potatoes and greens, and Paddy had the veal. We shared a sardine dish for an appetizer. If you eat seafood, don’t leave Portugal without trying a bacalhau dish and a sardine dish. These items are staples to Portuguese cuisine.
The food at Cervejaria do Barrio was good, but the atmosphere was bland and this meal was probably my least favorite of the trip. Since it was a good meal, that says a lot about Portuguese food.
We had a couple more drinks after dinner at Wasp, a rock bar with a bit more of a classic rock theme. This and The Cave fulfilled Paddy’s rock bar requirement of the trip.
Day 3: Day trip to Evora
One of the number one things on my list for our trip to Portugal was Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of the Bones) in the town of Evora, about 1.5-2 hours outside of Lisbon. This was an easy day trip, and you can either take the train or a bus. The bus has more frequent departure and return options, but we preferred the train.
I purchased train tickets from the Entrecampos station in Lisbon to Evora online before we arrived on https://www.cp.pt/passageiros/en/buy-tickets. Note that you need to create an account and enter your passport number when buying train tickets on the site. You can also buy them at the train station. You will show your tickets to the train conductor while in transit, so keep them where you can access them easily.
Evora is a small medieval town with a lot of history. It was occupied by the Romans, then the Moors, and then a Portuguese monarchy in the middle ages. Much of Evora’s medieval buildings are still standing, as well as one ancient Roman ruin in the center of town. Evora looks very different from Lisbon. It is less hilly, and the town sticks to a uniform white and gold color on all of its buildings.
Our train arrived at 11:00 AM, and we proceeded immediately to Capela dos Ossos, a short walk from the train. It was Sunday, and the attached cathedral had a service in session so we just visited the chapel and museum.
Capela dos Ossos was built in the 16th century by a Franciscan friar, using the bones from local cemeteries. It was meant as a contemplation about life and death, believing our time on earth to be one stop on the spiritual transition. At the entrance is an ominous engraved scripture that reads “Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos” or “We bones that are here, we are waiting for yours.” Some find Capela dos Ossos very morbid. I’m always into the macabre, and seeing human bones does not bother me so much.
The attached museum had mostly medieval art and was mildly interesting but the chapel was the star attraction. We really lucked out on our timing–there were only a few other patrons in the chapel when we were there, but when we walked out there was a huge line to get in. Go early if you can.
We were really hungry, and I had read about a restaurant in Evora specializing in suckling pig called O Parque dos Leitoes. It is on the outside of the town wall near the train station.
We didn’t expect O Parque dos Leitos to be as fancy as it was, but they were able to squeeze us in without a reservation. If you come here, dress up a bit and make a reservation if you can.
O Parque dos Leitoes specializes in pork. In many forms. Legs of cured Iberian ham hang on the wall near the entrance, sliced very thin and delicate and served as an appetizer.
Many small dishes are already on your table when you arrive, and they are not free. They are all listed in the menu, and you tell the waiter which ones you would like to keep (if any). We had the octopus salad. Given the level of white tablecloth fanciness, it felt like ordering wine with lunch was the right thing to do.
We ordered a dish with Iberian black pork medallions, and the suckling pig. Everything was delicious, and the suckling pig skin was crispy and almost candy-like. Both pork dishes were extremely tender. The suckling pig came with potato chips, which I found odd. I would have preferred a vegetable side to go with all that rich pork. The black pork medallions came with tomato bread pudding, which was pretty good but very carb heavy.
There were some mouth-watering pies and cakes in a glass case near the entrance, but we were too full for dessert. If you stay a night or two in Evora, go here for dinner and be sure you arrive hungry.
Re-fueled (perhaps a bit too much), we waddled up the gradual hill back through town to the Roman temple ruins.
It was Sunday, and many of the shops were closed. Most of the ones that were open were tourist shops. We enjoyed just walking around the narrow streets, and listening to a group of singers outside the Sao Joao Evangelista church.
There was an hour and a half to kill before our 4:45 PM train, and it was starting to rain a bit. We walked around in search of a bar or cafe we could go in and have a glass of wine at, but not much was open. We eventually resigned ourselves to waiting at the train station kiosk, but happened by a funky little cafe/bar in the Alkimia Madeirense restaurant right near the train station. It was a beacon of light and we warmed up with Irish coffee until it was time for the train.
*Self-catering tip: One of the best things about the Entrecampos train station in Lisbon is the large Lidl grocery store attached to it. We were tired and still a bit full from our huge lunch, so we thought we’d get some wine and snacks and have a quiet night in. We walked out with two bottles of local wine, bread, cheeses, cured salami, cucumber, tomato, several savory pastries for breakfast, a salad mix and two liters of water for under $18 USD.
*Note on Lisbon groceries: It was actually pretty difficult to find a real grocery store in our neighborhood. There were lots of mini marts but Lidl was the only store we found that was a full size grocery store. If you plan on cooking in your apartment, it’s worth an Uber ride there and back to do one big stock up trip.
Day 4: Day trip to Sintra
The castles of Sintra, particularly Pena Palace, are the most visited tourist attractions in Portugal. Whenever I am set on visiting a very touristy site, I always do a lot of research on how to make it the least horrible experience possible. Based on my research and experience, here is the wisdom I will bestow upon you for Sintra:
Tips for visiting Sintra:
1. If you want to see more than two attractions in Sintra, plan on staying at least two days there. You won’t be able to see them all in a day trip, even though many of them are close together.
2. If you’re visiting Pena Palace, go there first, and go there right when they open. Also, try to visit in the off season if possible. It was packed enough for us in November, I can’t imagine it in June.
3. Buy your tickets online in advance for Pena Palace. If you don’t get your tickets in advance, there is an automated ticket machine that had no line that takes cards with four digit PIN numbers only. Otherwise, be prepared to stand in a long line at the ticket counter, and then another long line to get in.
4. Don’t even think about walking to the castles from Sintra town. We did not make this mistake, but from what I read, many others have. It is a huge hike up a mountain. Take an Uber or the tourist bus.
5. If you’re doing a day trip from Lisbon, take an Uber. I read a lot about how easy it is to take the train from Lisbon, then the tourist bus up the hill to the castles. When I added up the cost of an Uber to the train station in Lisbon, then the train tickets for both of us to Sintra, then the tourist bus tickets up the mountain to the castles, it worked out to be almost the same as an Uber ride. The Uber picked us up at our apartment in Lisbon and dropped us right off at the entrance to Pena Palace. It was $30 USD each way. Quick and easy.
We had a fantastic Uber driver to Pena Palace. I was worried we might get someone grumpy about driving 40 minutes out of town, but he was very talkative and gave us lots of tips for visiting Sintra.
We hadn’t bought tickets in advance unfortunately, and when we arrived there was already a long line at the ticket booth before it was even open. Our Uber drive suggested that we walk a little ways back down the hill to the tourist office and get our tickets there and walk back up to avoid the line. We were about to do that when we noticed two ATM-style ticket machines with no one using them. We walked up to them and got behind one other tourist who successfully purchased tickets. You just need a credit or debit card with a four digit PIN number to use the machine. We were stoked that we didn’t have to wait in the long line.
What we didn’t know, was that you can opt for shuttle tickets up to the castle from the entry gate, which we did not opt for. There is, of course, a line for said shuttle as well. Given that and that we were out of shape yet able-bodied, we climbed up the steep hill to the castle. I had to take a few breaks. But we made it.
The palace is a thing to behold.
Pena Palace began as a monastery in the 1500s, later built into the colorful Disney castle type structure in the 1800s by King Ferdinand. Following the death of King Ferdinand, the palace was opened to the public as a museum in 1911. It was classified as an UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Landscape along with the entire town of Sintra in 1995.
You can tour just the castle grounds and the surrounding park by itself, or you can tour the grounds and the castle interior. The castle interior requires a full ticket and your ticket will be checked again at the castle entrance if you have opted for this option (don’t throw it away).
The interior of the castle was interesting, but the exterior was the most amazing part. The level of detail and eccentricity was mind-boggling. There were so many details to look at, and each part of the exterior was different.
Pena Palace is the busiest tourist attraction in Portugal, but it is cool enough to be worth braving the crowds.
There are several other attractions in Sintra: The Moorish Castle, The Palace of Monserrate, Quinta da Regaleira, Queluz Palace, The National Palace of Sintra, and several other parks and gardens. We knew we’d really only have the time (and energy) for two attractions, so after reviewing our options, we chose Quinta da Regaleira as our second stop. Quinta da Regaleira is not far from Pena Palace, it is at the bottom of the mountain near town. We were able to get an Uber pretty quickly from outside the main entrance of the Palace down to Quinta da Regaleira.
Quinta da Regaleira is also a palace, along with a chapel in a gothic architectural style. However, the palace is less the main attraction than the property itself. There are lakes, grottoes, tunnels and caves, and various towers and structures around the property. It is gorgeous and very unique. Plan on spending some time outdoors here exploring.
One of the most interesting parts of the property at Quinta da Regaleira is the Initiation Well, an inverted tower. I had seen pictures of it but didn’t know what to expect until we were there. A sign told us it was one-way only, single file entrance through a tiny door in the side of a rock formation at the top of a hill.
After waiting for several young ladies holding up the line to get the perfect Instagram photos (insert eye roll here), we began our descent down the spiral tower, not having any idea where we would end up.
We ended up in a series of underground cave tunnels. It took us a few minutes to figure out the best way out, but it was fun! Such a crazy, unique place. Apparently the tunnels and well were used for Tarot initiation ceremonies…whatever those entailed.
We had worked up an appetite by the time we had finished touring Quinta da Regaleira, and fortunately it was only a short walk from there to a tapas restaurant I’d scoped out online.
Tascantiga did not disappoint. Sort of like sushi restaurants, they provide you with a paper menu with quantity boxes and a pencil to fill out your selections. Most dishes are small and meant to be shared, so you can order several of them. The atmosphere was cute, with mis-matched dining chairs and cheerful colors. There was an outdoor patio for nice weather.
Everything was delicious, and we wished we could have tried more of their dishes. If you’re visiting the attractions of Sintra, this is a great lunch stop.
After lunch we felt like we had done a major hike up a mountain from all the climbing up hills and stairs and walking around the palaces, so we called an Uber back to our Lisbon apartment for a nap.
Later in the evening, we went for dinner at Os Bons Malandros in Bairro Alto. We were the first people there when they opened at 7:00 because we’re American and we eat early like that. We took the advice of the owner and many reviewers on Tripadvisor and ordered the avocado tuna dish, the prawns, and a dish with goat cheese wrapped in phyllo pastry with red pepper jam. Paddy ordered a steak which came with potatoes and creamed spinach.
The tuna that everyone raved about on Tripadvisor was even better than I expected it to be. I was expecting a straight ceviche-style tuna with avocado, but it was sort of a hybrid ceviche/Hawaiian poke flavor. There was a refreshing lime flavor as well as a sesame oil flavor that was not too overpowering. It came with two “mojito balls” on spoons to give a burst of mojito flavor prior to eating the tuna.
The prawns were the best I’ve ever had, and that’s not an exaggeration. They were HUGE, and tasted like little lobsters. Cooked perfectly and very tender, with a very flavorful sauce. Paddy also enjoyed his steak, and the goat cheese…well, how can you go wrong with goat cheese in phyllo pastry? It was delicious.
As it was early on a Monday and there weren’t many customers, the owner chatted with us a bit and was very fun to talk to. He recommended some fantastic local port wine for dessert.
Go here for a quiet, relaxing dinner and be sure to order the tuna and the prawns.
A trip to Portugal isn’t complete without listening to some live Fado music. Fado is a traditional Portuguese style of music, usually involving a singer and a guitar or two, signing mournful, soulful, melancholy songs. Being fans of Anthony Bourdain, we followed in his footsteps to A Tasca do Chico in Bairro Alto.
The secret’s out at A Tasca do Chico, so be prepared to wait in a line at the door. The place is tiny, and people are packed in like sardines. The doors are closed during performances, which last about three songs before the doors open again, giving people a chance to leave and others to come in. We waited about 15 minutes before we were ushered in by the doorkeeper. He didn’t speak English but we deducted that he was telling us to go to the bar. We ordered glasses of wine and then he told us to stand near the door (the only available standing space) while the guitar players and singer set up. The doors closed, and the music began.
The music was beautiful, and the place was really cozy. Had we had a seat and had there not been a line of people anxious to see the Fado performances outside in the rain, we could have easily sat and enjoyed the music all evening. But we wanted to give others a chance to enjoy it, so we left after the three-song set.
There were lots of touristy places in Lisbon offering Fado, and this place may not have been as touristy prior to Bourdain’s visit, but it was touristy now. However, it still wasn’t cheesy touristy. It still had the cozy charm that I’m sure brought Bourdain’s crew there to begin with. If you’re willing to wait and squeeze in like sardines to see some Fado, it’s worth a visit.
Day 5: Lisbon’s pink street, a tiki bar, and a lot of rain
We were glad we packed our three gung-ho sightseeing days into the first three days, because when we woke up Tuesday morning, it was absolutely pouring rain. In addition, Paddy woke up with a sore throat. We felt like a lazy day was in order.
Eventually, we ventured out into the city. We had raincoats and we were from Seattle after all, so what was a little rain? We treated ourselves to Thai foot massages at Siam Thai Massage in the city center. Our feet were rejuvenated after all that walking, and it was a good rainy day activity. (Note–Siam Thai is cash only).
We walked around the commercial shopping streets a bit until we found ourselves at the Praca do Comercio, the large main square on the River Tejo.
Under normal circumstances, the Praca do Comercio would have been a nice place to stroll and have a cup of coffee in the sun. However, the rain was relentless and we began to get a bit wet, despite our raincoats. We did a little shopping at a shop selling port wine and canned sardines, and then called an Uber back to the apartment to dry off.
That evening we had a dinner reservation at Le Petit Cafe in Afalma, which ended up being the best meal of our trip. If you are looking for a romantic dinner spot with excellent Portuguese food, Le Petit Cafe is your date spot.
I had one of the two best octopus dishes I’d ever had in my life (the other was in Tulum, Mexico). It was so tender and flavorful. We shared a chocolate mousse for dessert.
If you’ve read much of our blog, you know we can’t resist a tiki bar, so after dinner we took an Uber to the one tiki bar in Lisbon, Bora Bora Polynesian Bar. It was very early at 8:30 PM, and we were the only people in the bar.
The waiter kept giving us weird looks while we walked around taking photos. We initially thought he didn’t like us much, but it turns out he was just a little odd and socially awkward. He was actually a really nice guy and gave me a daisy “for the lady” and told me that the Bora Bora dated back to the 1980’s. The decor was very classic mid-century style tiki bar, I would have guessed the 1970’s. A few workers were carrying in buckets of ice and they seemed to be preparing for a busy night. I would love to go back late on a Saturday night to see what kind of crowd parties here. There was a second room downstairs as well that we didn’t get to see.
The music was wildly inappropriate for a tiki bar (Meatloaf?!?) but the decor and elaborate tiki mugs were on point. The drinks were a little sugary. The menu didn’t list what was in the drinks, so we asked the waiter to identify the less sweet ones and we went with those. Paddy had a Mai Tai, and I had the Fire’s God. Mine came with dry ice “smoke.”
Overall, it was pretty awesome. I’d like to come back and see it when it’s busy. They really do need to work on that music though.
Not ready to call it a night yet, we took another Uber down to the infamous “Pink Street” in the Cais do Sodré neighborhood. The neighborhood used to be the red light district in Lisbon, but got a makeover in 2011 complete with a street painted pink. I’d read about a bar called Pensão Amor that sounded really funky and wanted to check it out.
The entrance to Pensão Amor wasn’t well marked, but we heard a band playing upstairs in a building where Google Maps said it should be, so we walked up the stairs. I instantly knew we were in the right place.
Burlesque comic-style graffiti art covered the stairwells between multiple levels in the building. Each level had something different going on within the burlesque theme. There was a sex shop selling toys, a disco ball room, a room with cozy alcoves, tiger print fabric wallpaper and a display case of vintage perfume bottles and other trinkets, and the main bar with a live band. It was hands-down the coolest bar I’ve ever been in.
There was no cover for the band, we walked right in. In the back room of the main bar were tables an chairs that looked like the set up from an 1800’s Victorian brothel. It was adorable. The band was awesome–they were from Brazil. The bar patrons were a young, artsy set and we felt right at home. It was a great evening. If funky, artsy bars are your thing, visit Pensão Amor and see what they’ve got going on. Live music, burlesque shows, open mic nights–who knows. Whatever it is, it will be worth checking out I’m sure.
Day 6: LX Factory
We slept in a while after a late night out, and Paddy was still recovering from a sore throat. We had a lazy morning, with coffee and croissants at a little cafe down the street. In the afternoon we took an Uber to LX Factory in the west part of the city.
LX Factory is an industrial part of the city that was taken over by artists and turned into a creative area with shops, galleries, restaurants and bars, and music venues. I think it’s probably most active in the evening, but it was fun to visit during the day. There are a lot of awesome murals, fun shops and some great restaurants.
At the recommendation from our friends who had recently visited Lisbon, we had a tapas lunch at A Praça. We second that recommendation.
After exploring all the shops, we ended our tour of LX Factory with a shared piece of chocolate cake and lemon tea at Landeau Chocolate. Their cake has been written up as some of the world’s best chocolate cake, so we had to see what the fuss was about. I have to say, it’s pretty damn good. Layers of fluffy light chocolate cake with chocolate mousse and a fine dusting of dark chocolate powder on top.
Paddy’s throat was still bothering him, so we picked up some groceries at Lidl and had another quiet evening at the apartment.
Day 6: Wine tour in Setubal region
I had booked a private wine tour through Tripadvisor for our last day. It ended up being a perfect, relaxing way to end our trip. Our tour guide Rodrigo picked us up around the corner from our apartment in the morning, and we drove south to the Setubal peninsula. Rodrigo was a great tour guide, and told us a lot about Lisbon and the Setubal region.
Our first stop was José Maria Da Fonseca Wines in Azeitao. José Maria Da Fonseca winery is a family-run winery that was founded in 1864. We took a tour of their cellars, featuring some of the largest wine barrels I’d ever seen. The oldest vintages were covered in cobwebs and we could only view them through a locked gate. It was quite a contrast to the newer wineries of Eastern Washington back home.
The tour ended with a tasting of two of their wines in their gift shop.
Our next stop was another family-run winery, Quinta de Alcube. This winery was in a much more rural setting in the Arrabida Mountains on a small farm. We were able to sit and relax and taste wine while talking to Rodrigo (and the winery cat, who was also very talkative). The wines were really nice, and it was refreshing to get a chance to see some of the beauty and charm of rural Portugal.
Rodrigo took us to another stop before the last wine tasting, Azulejos de Azeitao azulejo tile factory. It wasn’t so much a factory as an artisan tile shop. Artists roll, cut, fire, and hand-paint the traditional Portuguese azulejo tiles in this small shop. We were able to get a demonstration of how the tiles were made, and see artists painting the tiles by hand. They have a shop selling the tiles individually if you would like to take one home as a souvenir.
Our last stop was a wine shop in the town of Palmela. Rodrigo ordered us a cheese platter to go along with our tasting, which was welcome as we were a little buzzed and getting hungry.
At the end of our tour, Rodrigo offered to drop us back at our apartment, or if we were hungry for lunch he recommended a food market a lot like Time Out Market but for locals called Mercado de Campo de Ourique. We felt like we could use another snack after all that wine, so we opted to check it out. Located in the Campo de Ourique neighborhood in Northwest Lisbon, this is a great spot to sample local Portuguese cuisine in a non-touristy setting. It is smaller than Time Out Market, but had some very tasty-looking food options. We had some codfish croquettes that were delicious.
Later that evening, we had our last dinner at a restaurant right next door to our apartment, Fumeiro de Santa Catarina. We didn’t have a reservation, so we went right when they opened at 7:00 and were able to get a spot on the end of a large party table who didn’t have a reservation until 9:00. The place is tiny, so reservations are recommended. Several people were turned away after we were seated.
Fumeiro means “smoked” and that is what their specialty is. Dishes are tapas style, meant to be shared. We ordered a few dishes, but our favorites were the smoked octopus, and the scallops. Everything was delicious. I couldn’t resist the chocolate mousse swimming in port wine for dessert. It was our last meal in Portugal, after all.
Our flight home was at 5:00 AM the next morning, and we had arranged for Welcome Pick Ups to pick us up at 2:00 AM to give us piece of mind in case it was tough to get an Uber. They showed up right on time and we would highly recommend them.
We absolutely LOVED Lisbon and Portugal. Paddy is ready to pack his bags and move there. The people were very friendly, the prices were affordable, and the food was some of the best we’ve ever eaten. Not to mention all the gorgeous architecture and historical buildings. We can’t wait to go back and visit Porto and some more of rural Portugal.
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Four days in Austin and Texas Hill Country: Tacos, vintage shops, delicious BBQ, wine tasting, and rock n roll.
We definitely did not get enough time in Austin on this trip. It was our first time in Texas, and it left us wanting to see more. Austin is a twangier, tangier, dustier version of Portland, Oregon. In fact, Portland actually stole Austin’s “Keep Austin Weird” slogan. Austin has more live music and less rain, more BBQ and less strip clubs. I am in love with both cities equally now, and wish it was easier to visit Austin as much as we visit Portland.
Paddy’s band The Mercy Ray was invited to play at their lead singer’s best friend’s 50th birthday party in Dripping Springs, Texas, about an hour outside of Austin in Texas Hill Country. Heidi (the lead singer) was from the Austin area, and really wanted to bring her band home for the party. We’d never been to Texas, so we all cashed in our airline miles for a four day weekend.
The best time of year to visit Texas is not early September. Austin in early September is 100+ degrees. That being said, it is still possible to have a great time while taking periodic refuge in air-conditioned environments.
Day 1: Exploring Austin: shopping and murals in the North Loop and South Congress neighborhood
In order to maximize our time in Austin and due to the lower flight price, we opted to fly in on Wednesday night and stay a night at a crappy airport hotel. The rest of the band was getting in late afternoon on Thursday, so we had the day to explore Austin on our own before our entourage arrived.
We checked out of the not-so-quality Quality Inn at the airport, picked up our rental car, and headed to the North Loop neighborhood to do some vintage shopping.
The North Loop neighborhood in North Austin has a cluster of great vintage shops right next to each other. If you are looking for a vintage Playboy issue or mid-century antiques, Room Service Vintage is your mecca.
Had we not had to ship it home, we may have purchased an awesome 70’s swag lamp here. But alas, it wasn’t quite worth the price or hassle. There was some truly fantastic stuff though. If you are into vintage shopping, this cluster of shops shouldn’t be missed.
After shopping, we were a bit peckish so we went for lunch at nearby Torchy’s Tacos. Torchy’s has many locations in Austin so it shouldn’t be difficult to find one. An Austin fast food favorite, Torchy’s offers lots of inventive and tasty tacos that are not your traditional Mexican fare. We both had a Trailer Park taco, which was fried chicken with pico de gallo, lettuce, chiles, cheese, and a poblano pepper sauce. Paddy also had a Brushfire jerk chicken taco with mango, and I had a Mr. Pink taco with seared ahi tuna and chipotle sauce. There were so many delicious options, we wanted to try them all!
We also loved that they had a big vat of house made unsweetened ice tea with fresh lemon wedges as a drink option. There was a house made sweet tea as well.
After lunch, we sought out a couple famous Austin murals. Austin has a plethora of great murals, and we only made it to a few of them. We prioritized the two Austin Texas murals for the photo op. It was our first day in Texas, and we couldn’t help ourselves.
We had a couple hours left to explore the South Congress neighborhood.
South Congress is a very popular area with both tourists and locals. Be warned that parking is not easy to come by. After driving around and discovering that all the neighborhood streets off South Congress are residential permit only, we finally found a pay lot at the South Congress Hotel on E Monroe Street.
South Congress street is full of fun shops and restaurants to explore, and is a must do for anyone visiting Austin. Our favorite store was Triple Z Threads, which takes vintage western shirts and embroiders various designs on them. There were sasquatches, scorpions, cats with laser eyes, and other fun designs. They also have a lot of fun t-shirts and other unique gifts.
Big Top Candy Shop has just about every kind of candy you can think of, and some you couldn’t imagine yet (sweet corn or pickle soda anyone?)
Allen’s Boots has the largest selection of cowboy boot styles I’ve ever seen. So many prints, sequins, colors, styles. If you are looking for some Texas cowboy boots to take home–this is your place. However, be sure to budget $200-$800 for a pair. These boots are quality, and some are even works of art.
Venturing out into Texas Hill Country:
The rest of the Mercy Ray had arrived by 3:00 so we met up with them at a nearby music rental store to get their gear. Once that was sorted out, we were ready to head out to our Airbnb house in Dripping Springs, about an hour from Austin.
Austin’s hill country is hot and dry, but also full of natural springs and swimming holes. We didn’t have time to check out any swimming holes on this trip, but if you need a break from the heat, here are a few options in the area:
*Note that many of the local swimming holes are organized and require advance reservations for a specific day and time slot as crowd control.
Our Airbnb house was really out in the middle of nowhere, but it was pretty. We loved the big porch with the hill country view.
There were quite a few Airbnb rental house options in the hill country area. Some even had swimming pools. We were happy that our rental had nice, frosty air conditioning and the fridge was stocked with Texas Topo Chico sparkling water.
Epic Texas Hill Country BBQ:
That evening we met up with Heidi and her family at the famous Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood. The Salt Lick can get pretty busy in the evenings, and they accept reservations for parties of 10 or more on weeknights. We made a reservation for our big group, which was advantageous. When we arrived there was already a walk-in wait list for the air-conditioned dining room.
If you can’t wait for a spot in the dining room, there is plenty of outdoor seating and you can order to-go orders to eat on the picnic tables outside.
A couple things to know about the Salt Lick:
1. It is cash only. There is an ATM on site if you need it
2. It is BYOB. They don’t sell alcohol here, but will gladly provide you with cups to drink yours with. Customers actually show up here with coolers of beer. If you didn’t bring your own, the Salt Lick has a winery next door with wines and beers for sale.
And then there’s the meat:
The meat is cooked over a huge BBQ pit, and there are several kinds to choose from. I had the pork ribs and turkey, and Paddy had a sampler platter with ribs, brisket, and pulled pork. While the meat was clearly the star of the show, we were super impressed with the coleslaw! I don’t like sweet, mayonnaise-based coleslaw, and theirs was quite the opposite. It was vinegar-based and super flavorful. The perfect compliment to the heavy meat. The potato salad was also delightful and very low on the mayo. Everything was top notch.
The only thing we weren’t crazy impressed with was the cobbler. It was WAY too sweet. They had peach and blackberry, and both were very sugary and didn’t let the tartness of the fruit come through. We also tried the chocolate pecan pie, which was good, but nothing outstanding.
After that huge dinner and a long day of sightseeing we were tired, so headed back to the Airbnb to have some drinks and relax.
Day 2: Day trip to Wimberley
We all went separate ways to do our own things on Friday. Paddy and I opted to drive down to the town of Wimberley, about a half hour drive from our Dripping Springs rental house.
Wimberley is a cute little town. It’s a town your mom will love. Lots of boutique shops to stroll around in and a western vibe. It’s a mom town.
We enjoyed all the artsy cowboy boot sculptures throughout the town. I read that there were more than what we saw, but we didn’t have time to find them all.
The shop keepers were very chatty and friendly. We took a lunch recommendation from one of them and had lunch at the Leaning Pear.
The Leaning Pear looked very upscale and new. It was full of ladies who lunch drinking ice tea and chardonnay. We expected it to be a bit pricey, but were shocked at how reasonable the prices were.
We each had a sandwich and a cup of their gazpacho. The ice tea wasn’t standard Lipton, it had a subtle fruit flavor to it. The gazpacho was very refreshing on such a hot day. The sandwiches were fantastic and only $8! Everything else on the menu looked delicious as well. If you are looking for a lunch spot in Wimberley, The Leaning Pear can’t be missed.
The Texas Hill Country is home to many wineries, and I had hoped to do a bit of wine tasting after lunch. Unfortunately, we ran out of time and were only able to visit one vineyard in Dripping Springs. We opted for the Solaro Estate Winery not far from our Airbnb.
Solaro Estate Winery had an impressive wall of wine awards off their tasting room. Our friendly host had us taste several wines, of which our favorite was their sparkling wine. Unfortunately sparkling wine and non-pressurized airplane cargo holds are not a good mix, so we didn’t purchase a bottle here. The others were nice, but we didn’t love them enough to justify the prices.
We spent the late afternoon and early evening enjoying the pool at Heidi’s friend Sita’s house in nearby Driftwood. In retrospect, we probably should have opted for an Airbnb with a pool, as nice as our rental house was. It was so hot and sitting in a pool with a drink made for a comfortable, relaxing afternoon.
For dinner that evening we went out to Hays City Store in Driftwood. We sat at outdoor picnic table seating under string lights. It was the perfect place to mop up all the beers and wine we drank at the pool.
I had the Chicken Fried Chicken with mashed potatoes and jalepeno gravy and a side of sauteed spinach. The jalepeno gravy had a nice flavor without being too spicy. I also tried their margarita sampler, which was Instagram-worthy and delicious. It came with classic lime, strawberry, watermelon, and jalepeno cucumber. If you are going for a full margarita here, the jalepeno cucumber is the best.
Day 3: Rock n Roll birthday party
Saturday was the day of the big 50th birthday party for Heidi’s friend Sita, so Paddy and the rest of the band wanted to take it easy and rest up.
The party was at an outdoor venue called Roadrunners in Dripping Springs. We arrived early so the band could load gear and set up before the party.
Roadrunners is a bar and grill in downtown Dripping Springs with tons of outdoor seating and shade, along with a playground for kids and a mini-golf course. In addition, they often have live music on the weekends. I wasn’t sure what to expect with the food, but we were all impressed with the quality. Their menu isn’t extensive–mostly burgers and sandwiches. However, the salad options were leafy, green and organic (no iceberg lettuce here) and the sandwiches were tasty. Craft cocktails were expensive, but beers were very reasonable. The Roadrunners staff were very accommodating for Sita’s birthday party and everything was a great success.
The layout of the property is nicely set up as well–the playground for entertaining the kids is far from the stage. Close enough to the main bar area for parents to sit in the shade and keep an eye on them, but far enough to not be a distraction from the entertainment at a show. There are many nooks and little tables to sit at throughout on the stage side. Enough space for someone to have an intimate conversation or be right up front to watch music.
The Mercy Ray did one of their best shows ever, and the party was fantastic. It was insanely hot though. Being an outdoor venue, we had to endure the 100 degree heat until the sun went down and dropped the temperature to 85. The drummer almost had heat stroke, but everyone survived and the staff supplied ample pitchers of ice water to everyone throughout the evening.
We loved Austin, and want to go back again and spend more time staying in the city itself. There were a lot of things I wanted to see that we missed, like the bats! We also want to check out more of Austin’s music scene and nightlife. If we go back, it will definitely be in the early spring or a time when it isn’t so dang hot. We had a bit more time to explore Austin before we went back to the airport Sunday afternoon, but it was so hot that we opted to go to the airport early for the air conditioning.
We did get a chance to check out a few shops on South Congress that we missed the first time, like Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds. Their plus-sized costume selection wasn’t stellar, but their earring selection was. I had to control myself and narrow it down to four pairs.
So long Austin, until we meet again!
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Four days in Walla Walla in July: A cute town with lots of shops and great restaurants, a Batman legacy, and more wine than you can shake a cork at.
Washington may be the Evergreen State, but half the state is not green at all. Eastern Washington is full of rolling hills, canyons, tumbleweeds, lakes, orchards, and wineries. As wine tasting is our favorite sport, we’ve explored quite a bit of it, but not all. I had been to Walla Walla once for a one night trip for the annual Onion Festival a few years back. It was a quick trip, and I was looking forward to seeing a bit more.
Every summer, hoards of Western Washingtonians pour over the Cascade mountain passes to Eastern Washington in search of sunshine. This was exactly our mission on this trip. We found a rental house with a pool on HomeAway, and our group of 8 friends was excited for a poolside holiday. Turns out, Walla Walla is a cute town that has a lot to offer. Come for the sunshine, but stay for the food, wine, and scenery.
Day 1: Roadtrip from Seattle to Walla Walla
Walla Walla is about a 4.5 hour drive from Seattle. We left Seattle on Wednesday morning at 9:00, after rush hour died down. I estimated our lunch pit stop time to be about when we were passing through Prosser, which ended up being correct. We stopped for lunch at the Horse Heaven Saloon in downtown Prosser.
I’m all about a good roadside attraction. There isn’t a lot going on in Granger, which is probably why they created a dinosaur park to attract tourists. It’s worth a stop if you are into that sort of thing.
In Prosser, The Horse Heaven Saloon was small, dark, and delightfully air-condtioned.
The food was pretty damn good. Paddy and I shared the nachos, which came with a beer cheese sauce. The cheese sauce was really tasty and a nice change-up from traditional nacho cheese. The chips were house-made. The menu is mostly pub grub, but all done really well with a bit of extra creativity. Our friends enjoyed their burgers and sandwiches as well. We would recommend this lunch stop if you are passing through Prosser.
Finally just outside of Walla Walla, we made one last stop at Woodward Canyon Winery, because we can’t help ourselves.
The host at Woodward Canyon gave us an overview of Walla Walla’s wineries, along with some restaurant recommendations. She suggested that if we only have limited time to wine taste during our visit, that we should go to the wineries on the south side of Walla Walla, as that area is the most scenic. Noted.
Woodward Canyon’s wines were a bit on the pricier side, but we did purchase a bottle of their less expensive “Pizza Wine,” a red blend with a whole lot of different types of grapes involved.
We finally met up with our friends in Walla Walla in the late afternoon. Our rental house was as described and the outdoor pool was as glorious as we had hoped. We spent the evening in the pool.
Day 2: Exploring Walla Walla: Shops, a historical museum, and Batman.
Here’s a little-known fact: Adam West, the star of the 1960’s Batman series, grew up in Walla Walla. The town of Walla Walla is so proud of this that they have an Adam West Day every year in September on Adam West’s birthday.
If you’re a Batman fan and can’t make it to Walla Walla on Adam West Day, don’t worry. You can visit a copious amount of Batman items and artifacts at the Kirkman House Museum. Paddy is a huge Batman fan, so this was a must see for us.
The Kirkman House Museum is a restored 1800’s mansion previously owned by the Kirkman family. We were given a guided tour by a very nice lady of the entire mansion and all its historical Kirkman family and 1800’s era artifacts. It was all very interesting, but the highlight was definitely the Batman room.
The climactic moment in the Batman room was when the statue next to the Bat Phone triggered the wall to the “Bat Cave” fire poles opened. Alas, there was no Bat Cave, but there was a good photo op with the poles and the Bat Phone.
If you are a Batman fan, or into historical museums, the Kirkman House is worth a stop. Open Wednesday through Saturday 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM, and Sunday 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM. Admission $7.00, cash preferred.
We spent another hour or two walking around downtown Walla Walla. There are many fun shops to explore with gifts, antiques, clothing, and toys. If you have a sweet tooth, Brights Candies is an old fashioned candy shop that has many kinds of candies and excellent fudge. The Hot Poop record store had a funny name and a large inventory, but their prices were a little outrageous. I did find a fun disco record there though.
If you enjoy wine tasting, there is a tasting room in between almost every other shop in downtown Walla Walla. If you are staying in town and don’t want to worry about driving, this is probably the best place to wine taste that I’ve been in Washington. You can walk to all the tasting rooms and restaurants and taste as much wine as you want without having to worry about transportation. There are more tasting rooms for local regional wines than anyone could ever visit in a day.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the pool, because it was 95 degrees out, and because pool.
Day 3: Southside Vineyards and a delicious dinner
We were ready to taste some more wine, and see some grapes growing. For me, part of the fun is visiting the vineyard and seeing the actual grapes growing in the sun. Most vineyards allow picnics as they don’t serve food, so you can make an afternoon of it and enjoy the wine and the scenery. In addition, tasting rooms are a great place to chit chat with a local host and find out recommendations and info on the area.
We followed the advice of our host at Woodward Canyon and drove out to the south side. Our first stop was the Castillo de Feliciana vineyard, which is actually just over the Oregon border and not in Walla Walla. It is only a 15 minute drive from town.
Castillo de Feliciana has a Spanish theme, from the tasting room architecture to the music to the grape varieties grown. It was a gorgeous vineyard, and the hosts told us to go sit out on the patio while they brought each tasting out to us. We sat and enjoyed the vineyard views of the countryside and Blue Mountains.
Our favorite wines were the Miercoles (“Wednesday”) red blend, the Rose of Tempranillo, and the 2015 Garnacha. We purchased a bottle of the Rose and the Garnacha. I think the tasting fee was $10 per person, waived with bottle purchase.
Castillo de Feliciana also serves sangria in the summer if you feel like spending some time and having a picnic. There are plenty of patio tables to picnic at, and the Spanish music piped outside really sets the mood. Bring some tapas and hang out for an hour or two with a glass of your favorite wine after the tasting.
We decided to go to one more vineyard, and chose Va Piano. Va Piano is an Italian style vineyard (we just went to Spain, why not go to Italy too?) in a cluster of many vineyards back over the Washington border.
Va Piano had grapes growing almost right up to the front entrance of the building, frosty air conditioning in the tasting room, and a very friendly host. The tasting fees were higher here but the wines are high quality. Tasting fees are waived with purchase.
I am not normally a fan of Sauvignon Blanc, but the Va Piano 2018 Sauvignon Blanc was my favorite white of the bunch, and a really nice refreshing summer wine. We ended up buying a bottle of the 2018 Sauvignon Blanc and the 2016 Syrah. We got a taste of the rich and smokey estate Syrah, which was not in our budget, unfortunately. It was really, really good though. We did not care for the Chardonnay here.
We had a picnic at the large, shaded table outside the tasting room, and our friendly host provided complimentary water.
If you are really into wine tasting at Walla Walla Valley vineyards and want to make a day of it, there are several tour and transportation options. You can join a tour for the day or hire a private tour driver for your group. I would recommend booking a few weeks in advance in the summer, especially for a weekend. Options can be found here: https://wallawalla.org/listing-category/wine-tours-transportation/
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the pool, as it was 96 degrees and we’d had enough walking around in the heat for the day.
Later that evening, we went out for dinner. We only went out to eat once on this trip as we like to cook together at our rental house to save money (and a lot of us like to cook). However, there are a lot of great restaurant options in Walla Walla, and it took us a bit to narrow it down to one choice for our dinner out.
Everything was oustanding: the service, the cocktails, the food, and desserts. It was very difficult to decide on an entree. Our host at Va Piano vineyard told us that he was still thinking about the chicken and grits dish he had ad a week or so before. I also have a hard time saying no to a good duck breast. Paddy and I ended up both going with the grilled pork collar with smashed potatoes, black garlic crema, and charred tomato chimichurri. We shared the duck pate appetizer as a starter.
The pork collar was very smokey, and the black garlic was a delicious compliment. The charred tomatoes added a nice acidic element to balance the heavy pork.
Our friends had a variety of dishes, and we covered close to everything on the menu. Everyone was very happy with what they ordered. Our friend who took our Va Piano host’s advice and ordered the chicken and grits dish was not disappointed.
A few other restaurants that we were interested in but did not get to try on this trip:
Our last full day in Walla Walla led us out of Walla Walla for the morning to Palouse Falls, an hour drive north of Walla Walla.
The drive to Palouse Falls from Walla Walla is through rolling hills of wheat fields. You can take a couple different roads from Walla Walla to get there. The most direct is highway 125/Lyons Ferry Road, which has a lot of windy twists and turns in the beginning. If you are prone to motion sickness, this might not be the best route for you. The other direct way is highway 12, connecting with the 261 in Lyons Ferry. The latter goes through a small town or two, and is longer but a bit less twisty.
We took highway 125/Lyons Ferry Road, which was pretty but did make me a little queasy, despite sitting in the front seat. The drive was only about an hour, and there was still plenty of parking available when we got there. We took highway 12 back.
*Note: Palouse Falls is a state park, which requires a Discover Pass to park there. There are no places to purchase a pass at the park, so buy an annual pass or day pass prior to your trip.
From the parking lot, walk down through the tiny campground to the cliff to view the falls.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the pool, because pool.
Walla Walla was a fun summer trip. It is a nice town with great summer weather, fantastic restaurants, and our favorite spot in Washington State so far for wine tasting. There are many beautiful sights to see nearby and fun shops to explore in the town. There is far too much wine to taste in one trip, so Paddy and I will be going back on our own to pick up where we left off.
Walla Walla has several hotel options in the downtown area, and many AirBnb/Home Away rentals as well. Bonus if you can find a vacation rental with a pool!
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A quick day trip to one of the largest and most remote waterfalls in Washington State: How to get to Palouse Falls and what to expect
I had seen photos of Palouse Falls in our home state of Washington and always wanted to go there, but it wasn’t really close to anything and is quite a long trek from Seattle. An off-shoot of the Snake River located in Southeast Washington State, Palouse Falls really is in the middle of nowhere. This summer, we had plans with some friends to spend a few days in Walla Walla—about an hour drive from Palouse Falls. We decided to take a day trip to check it out.
While wine tasting the day before in the Walla Walla area, our wine servers advised that we go to Palouse Falls early in the morning if possible. Visiting the falls has become increasingly popular. We set out on the road from Walla Walla at around 9:00 AM on a Saturday, hoping to beat any possible crowds.
The drive to Palouse Falls from Walla Walla is through rolling hills of wheat fields. You can take a couple different roads from Walla Walla to get there. The most direct is highway 125/Lyons Ferry Road, which has a lot of windy twists and turns in the beginning. If you are prone to motion sickness, this might not be the best route for you. The other direct way is highway 12, connecting with the 261 in Lyons Ferry. The latter goes through a small town or two, and is longer but a bit less twisty.
We took highway 125/Lyons Ferry Road, which was pretty but did make me a little queasy, despite sitting in the front seat. The drive was only about an hour, and there was still plenty of parking available when we got there. We took highway 12 back.
*Note: Palouse Falls is a state park, which requires a Discover Pass to park there. There are no places to purchase a pass at the park, so buy an annual pass or day pass prior to your trip.
From the parking lot, walk down through the tiny campground to the cliff to view the falls.
The falls are stunning, and the canyon is a sharp contrast to green western Washington, and even the golden wheat fields on the way to the falls. There are a few view points from the parking lot area.
We were hoping for a small hike or something to make the visit a bit more exciting than getting out of the car and looking at the falls. We walked up the hill to the left of the parking lot facing the falls and found a small trail, with this sign:
The trail led away from the falls, along the canyon towards an eventual descending trail down to the canyon floor a ways from the falls.
We walked on it for a little ways, but had no intention of trying to get down to the falls.
If your plan is to swim beneath the falls or hike down to the falls, please reconsider. There have been several deaths at Palouse Falls, the more recent ones including a man who fell when a ledge crumbled underneath him, and another where a man swimming under the falls got sucked under by the waterfall and drowned. It is extremely dangerous, and the falls are best enjoyed from the top of the canyon, a safe distance from the edge.
We may have been interested in exploring the trails on the top of the canyon away from the falls a bit more, had it not been 90 degrees with the strong possibility of rattlesnakes.
Regardless, the views were gorgeous and there were copious amounts of wild sunflowers.
The area was gorgeous, and it was a nice morning activity from Walla Walla. I don’t think the trip to Palouse Falls would be worth the drive for a day trip from anywhere further away than an hour and a half. There isn’t a lot to do other thank take in the beauty of the falls and the surrounding canyon.
Staying near Palouse Falls:
For a longer visit, the tent campground at Palouse Falls State Park wasn’t great. There was no privacy at all and you have day trip visitors trekking through the campground constantly. It is also first-come, first-served, meaning that if you drive all the way out there and the campground is full, you are out of luck. However, I am willing to bet that at night when all the visitors are gone and it is just campers left, the stars probably look spectacular.
If you really want to camp in the area, you might be better off camping at the Starbuck/Lyons Ferry KOA a 15 minute drive away. I haven’t stayed there, but they take reservations and the campground is right on the Snake River. Their website shows swimming and boating activities available at the campground.
Overall, Palouse Falls and the surrounding Snake River area is a unique area in Washington State and definitely worth a visit.
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Visiting local friends in New York City: The Coney Island Mermaid Parade, Exploring the East Village, Williamsburg, and a lot of great food.
I finally feel like I really got to know New York City. My three previous trips to New York City were all quick two-day adventures, mostly focused on hitting up big attractions in the city. This was a solo trip to visit my native New Yorker bestie Keith, for 6 nights. Keith and his partner Mike were kind enough to put me up in their Inwood apartment guest room, and I timed my trip around the Coney Island Mermaid Parade in June. Having seen most of the big tourist attractions, I was able to spend my 5 days in New York City having fun and and exploring some of the amazing food and quirky attractions New York has to offer.
Day 1: The Museum of Sex, The Guggenheim, and a Tiki Bar
Following a three hour flight delay due to thunderstorms in New York, an evening of catching up with Keith and Mike, and a good night’s sleep, I was ready to head out into the city. Keith’s suggestion for the day was the Museum of Sex in the mid town area. They were having an exhibit on sexuality in the 1970’s -early 1980’s punk scene, and Keith had read about a bouncy house made out of boobs. That there was a bouncy house of boobs was really all he had to say, but the punk exhibit sounded great too.
The punk exhibit was interesting, focused on the early punk scene in New York City. Punk celebrity fashion, show posters, show videos, and photographs were displayed with a lot of text about sexuality in early punk culture.
There was also an exhibit on the history of the stag film, with video clips of various pornographic films and cartoons from the 1920’s on display along with an informative history timeline of pornographic films.
The main highlight however, was SuperFunLand, which was a carnival like exhibit with a kaleidoscope room, various carnival games, and as promised–a bouncy boob house.
SuperFunLand costs a bit extra (I think like $4 extra), but it is totally worth it. You only get about 5 minutes in the bouncy boob house, but I really don’t know how much longer than that I could jump around on boobs to Van Halen’s “Jump.” It was a good amount of time for me.
After bouncing on boobs, we went down a dark velvety hallway to a door titled The Tunnel of Love. The ticket man asked us if we were prone to seizures or motion sickness, and if we minded being squirted in the face with water. We weren’t sure what we were in for, but we swiped our ticket cards and forged ahead.
The Tunnel of Love was a large-scale immersive short film exhibit with moving seats and special effects to make you feel like you were moving through the film. And yes, we were squirted in the face with water twice. It was a little sexy, a little psychedelic, and a little obnoxious. Overall, I’d recommend. A note about motion sickness: I am very prone to motion sickness, and I was fine.
After the Museum of Sex and a bit of meandering in a book store and getting coffee, we were ready for a bite to eat. One of my bucket list food spots on this trip was celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s Baohaus in the East Village.
I wished I was a bit hungrier, as I wanted to try all the baos. I settled on the Chairman Bao with pork belly, relish, crushed peanuts and cilantro. Keith tried the Birdhaus Bao, which was fried chicken with a lemon-garlic aoli, crushed peanuts, and cilantro. They were really good and if there weren’t so many other great places to eat in New York City, I would have gone back and tried them all. Note that one bao is snack-sized, two would be more of a meal. They also serve rice bowls and taro fries, which we did not try.
Second on my East Village bucket list was getting dessert at Milk Bar. Milk Bar is chef Cristina Tosi’s creation, most famous for her cereal milk ice cream, and Milk Bar Pie (formerly known as “crack pie,” but I guess someone gave them flack about that). Paddy and I really enjoyed the episodes about Milk Bar and Cristina Tosi on David Chang’s segment of Mind of A Chef (Netflix), and I needed to see what the fuss was all about.
Keith and I both opted for the cereal milk and compost cookie ice cream swirl combo, with compost cookie topping. It was pretty damn good, but not something I would go out of my way for specifically. You do have to be someone who really likes the salty-sweet flavor combo (which I do) to enjoy this ice cream.
I really wanted to try a piece of the Milk Bar Pie too, but there is only so much sugar I can consume in one sitting. I vowed to return.
Later that evening, Keith and I took a walk through Central Park on our way to the Guggenheim Museum.
The Guggenheim Museum was having a private preview party for it’s members to come view the new Basquiat exhibit after hours. Keith was a member, and what is more New York City than a private party at the Guggenheim?
The Guggenheim had a really awesome corkscrew layout, where you can walk (up or down) the spiral to view the art. There are off-shoots from the spiral levels to larger exhibit rooms. There was also a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit that was really interesting.
The Guggenheim Museum is normally open from 10:00 AM to 5:30 PM daily, and Saturdays until 8:00 PM. Check it out.
After the Guggenheim we took a cab to the East Village to meet up with Keith’s partner Mike for dinner.
Mike has been trying to eat a more plant-based diet lately, so he suggested Bar Verde, a Mexican restaurant serving only plant-based dishes. Bar Verde was packed, but the wait for a table wasn’t too long.
We started with the smoked pineapple mezcalito cocktails, which were pricey ($15) but delicious. We also tried the hearts of palm ceviche, and several types of tacos including tempura avocado, maitake mushroom carnitas, and farro chorizo.
I’m not a vegetarian but I do love veggies. The array of veggies used in all the dishes was extremely broad, and everything was packed with flavor. I would absolutely recommend this place, even if you aren’t vegetarian.
Otto’s Shrunken Head was having Rebel Night, a 50s and 60s vinyl dance party that happens every third Friday of the month. We ordered some drinks at the bar (I got the squealer– a lychee and passion fruit slushy in a pig tiki mug) and made our way to the back room to check out the dance party.
*Tiki drinks at Otto’s are $20 including a tiki mug. If you don’t want your mug, just return it to the bar when you’re done for $6 back.
I thought it might be fun to do the twist to some old vintage vinyl, but the back room was full of people who actually knew how to dance. There was a group of about 12-15 people in full vintage rockabilly attire, with rehearsed swing-dance style moves. I was not going to try and join in with that, but was happy to drink my slushy pig on the side bench and watch. It was impressive.
We didn’t stay out crazy late because we had a mermaid parade to judge the next day.
Day 2: The Coney Island Mermaid Parade
I timed my visit to New York City around the Coney Island Mermaid Parade in June after Keith told me it existed. We had purchased judge-ships for $200 each well in advance, which included bleacher seats, port-a-potties for judges only, free beer and food, a t-shirt, and the opportunity to view and judge the mermaids. Because mermaids.
Coney Island was a two hour subway ride from Keith’s apartment in north Manhattan, but it was worth it. We donned sailor attire for the occasion.
The parade and costumes were fantastic, and I would absolutely recommend it if you are in New York in June. I read later that there were approximately 850,000 people at the parade. Bring water and sunscreen and try to arrive by 11:00 AM if you want to avoid subway crowds and stake out your spot. Or be a judge, and get a great seat in the shade with all the amenities.
The parade lasted from 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM, and included three marriage proposals and one actual wedding. The costumes were impressive, and glitter was everywhere.
After the parade was over, the “mayor” of Coney Island did a beach opening ceremony, which we missed. We walked along the boardwalk where mermaids from the parade were posing for photos. The beach was definitely open, and very crowded.
We had enough of crowds for the day, so we headed back to the subway station to go get dinner and relax a bit in Brooklyn.
Keith’s friend suggested a little French Bistro called Bar Tabac right near the subway in the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. We got a little side walk table outside, a nice shady spot to wind down after a day of crowds and mermaids. I had the calamari and the gazpacho, which was delicious on a hot day. Bar Tabac was very cute and everything on their menu looked amazing. I would definitely recommend this place for lunch or dinner if you are in the area.
The Mermaid Parade and long subway journey wiped us out, so we ended our Saturday night watching Golden Girls at Keith and Mike’s apartment.
Day 3: Lazy Sunday Brunch in Harlem
New Yorkers love their Sunday Brunch. My celebrity chef nerdery led us to Marcus Samulesson’s Red Rooster in Harlem, an easy subway ride from Keith and Mike’s north Manhattan apartment.
Red Rooster has a “gospel brunch” on Sundays, with live gospel singers as entertainment. They don’t take reservations for brunch, and I was worried that the wait might be long. To our surprise and delight, we walked right in and were seated right away.
I will warn you, Red Rooster is a bit on the expensive side. Expect to pay for brunch what you would for a nice dinner. That being said, the food is heavy and delicious and you will leave full and happy.
We started with some bloody marys, which were strong. I had to try Marcus Samuelsson’s fried chicken that I’d heard so much about, so I ordered the Hot Honey Yardbird which came with sweet corn succotash and tomato salad. The chicken was crispy and a little sweet, and the tomato salad and succotash was the perfect fresh and acidic compliment to the heavy fried chicken.
Keith had the Rooster Slam, which had a little bit of everything, and Mike had the NY Cheddar & Kale Omelette. Everything was outstanding.
One of the gospel singers walked around the room with a portable microphone, serenading diners.
When we left, there was a line out the door. I guess we hit the right time. Red Rooster lived up to the hype, and I will definitely want to come back on my next visit to New York City.
After brunch we walked around Harlem a little bit. Mike has a thing for cookies, and said that I had to try one of the enormous cookies from Levain Bakery. We stopped into their Harlem location to pick some up for dessert that evening. The cookies are huge, more like a cookie mountain. I can attest that they are delicious. The bakery was tiny, and there were a few other baked goods for sale, but it was clear that the cookie was the star of the show here. They come in chocolate chip walnut, chocolate chocolate chip, chocolate with peanut butter chips, and oatmeal.
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking in Inwood Hill Park, and having drinks with friends and watching the Women’s World Cup at the Tubby Hook Tavern in Inwood.
Day 4: Wandering in Williamsburg
On Monday, Keith and Mike had to go back to work so I had a day to myself. I had read about a plus size consignment clothing store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, so I decided to wander around Williamsburg for the day.
Williamsburg was an industrial neighborhood in Brooklyn without a lot going on until the 1990’s. As with any trendy neighborhood, low rents brought in artists and young people and gentrification set in. Williamsburg is now a hipster-mecca in Brooklyn, and I was curious to see what it was all about.
After three days of walking all over New York, my feet were a little beat up. I had a little time to kill before some of the shops in Williamsburg opened up, so I got a reflexology foot massage at Happy Foot Spa on North 5th St.
Feeling relaxed and my feet rejuvenated, I walked over to Plus BKLYN consignment boutique. It was a super cute shop, but the inventory was a little low. I didn’t find anything I loved this time, but would recommend checking it out if you are a size 14+.
I poked around in a few more shops on Bedford Avenue before I got a little overheated walking in the hot sun. Time for lunch and a cold drink.
I had originally scoped out Pies and Thighs as my lunch option for the day, but after just having eaten fried chicken the day prior and it being so hot, I wanted something lighter. I ended up at Pearl’s, a Caribbean spot on North 8th St, and ordered a refreshing jerk chicken salad with mango and arugula. A variety of sauces were brought to the table, the best of which was a creamy garlic sauce that I ended up slathering all over my chicken.
Later that evening, I met up with Keith and Mike in the East Village for dinner at Prune, another restaurant on my celebrity chef nerdery list. On Mind of a Chef, one of our favorite cooking shows on Netflix, Paddy and I fell in love with chef Gabrielle Hamilton. I loved her aprons and mis-matched pots and pans, down-to-earth cooking style, and her creativity. She hates letting anything go to waste in her kitchen, which is also something I greatly admire. I was excited to try her cooking.
Prune is tiny but intimate. I was glad I had made a reservation, as the place was packed on a Monday night.
We started with the shaved celery salad with blue cheese toast, and the fried anchovies. The anchovies were simple but delicious. The celery salad was really impressive. I wouldn’t think to make celery a star ingredient in anything, but here it was, hogging the spotlight drenched in butter on blue cheese toast. And it was fabulous.
For an entree I ordered the roasted duck breast with braised beans and smoked tomato vinaigrette, which was smoky and cooked perfectly. Mike had a medley of different veggie dishes which was their vegetarian option, and Keith had some gargantuan hunk of meat on bone that I can’t remember what it was. Forgive me, I was enamored with my duck and wasn’t paying attention.
The dishes didn’t have the prettiest presentation, but that is exactly Gabrielle Hamilton’s style. Food cooked with lots of flavor and love that doesn’t have to dress to impress. I am looking forward to going back here again with Paddy someday.
As tempting as dessert was at Prune, we wanted to cap the evening off with dipped soft serve from the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop around the corner. New York’s best soft serve is big, gay, and covered in delicious toppings. No matter what your sexual orientation is, you have to have Big Gay Ice Cream in New York City. Complete with Heimlich maneuver instructions illustrated with Bea Arthur and a unicorn.
Keith got the Dorothy cone, which was vanilla soft serve with dulce de leche syrup and crumbled nilla wafers. I naturally opted for the salty pimp, another vanilla soft serve cone with dulce de leche dipped in salty dark chocolate. What’s not to love?
Our subway car’s AC was out on the way back to north Manhattan, so we got a free impromptu crowded public sauna to end the evening. It was gross. Se la vie.
Day 5: Catacombs and the East Village
Late Monday night before I went to bed, an ad popped up in my Facebook feed for a Catacombs tour at Saint Patrick’s Basilica in the Nolita neighborhood. I didn’t have any solid plans the next day, so I booked it.
The tour is run by Tommy’s New York and is a tour of the tombs underneath the basilica, which contain members of New York’s historical elite. Buried here are bishops, congressmen, and members of the Delmonico family, as well as many others.
The tour started at 11:00 am, where we got a brief history of the church in a waiting room across the street from the basilica. We were then led to a basement room under the church where two huge wooden doors creaked open for dramatic effect, revealing a dark hallway lit only by candlelight and an eerie red glow.
Before you get too excited, this isn’t like the catacombs you might see in Paris or other parts of Europe. You aren’t going to see any real human bones. Overall this tour is mostly an interesting New York City history lesson, and not much of a macabre experience. It was fun to tour it by candlelight, however, and we were all given a souvenir electronic tea light to walk with and help us read the inscriptions on the tombs.
Turns out the gothic red glow illuminating the hallways was from red exit signs in the back of the catacombs. It did make for a nice effect.
Our guide was informative and fun. If you have time and want to learn about some historic New York families and feel like getting a little spooky, this is a nice way to spend two hours. I’d recommend it as a good escape from the heat or rain as well. That day I was happy to escape both.
We got a brief tour of the inside of the basilica before afternoon mass started, and ended with a tour of the cemetery surrounding the church.
Saint Patrick’s Basilica is only a few blocks from the East Village, so I walked over there after the tour to have lunch and do some shopping. On my agenda for lunch was the B&H Dairy, a kosher deli in business since 1938. B&H advertises itself as a vegetarian restaurant, but in truth it is a pescatarian restaurant (they serve fish). I don’t eat beef, so I thought I’d skip the long lines at Katz’s Delicatessan in favor of this place (I’ll go to Katz’s someday with Paddy on another trip, he is all about the pastrami).
Seattle is seriously lacking in the kosher deli department, so I felt like I couldn’t leave New York without having some matzo ball soup at a kosher deli, and I’d also never had a knish. I bellied up to the lunch counter and ordered both.
I have mixed feelings about my meal choice here. On one hand, I was happy to tick New York City matzo ball soup and a knish off my New York checklist. On the other hand, I was kicking myself for not ordering one of the tuna fish or white fish salad sandwiches on thick homemade bread that I watched the deli guy constructing. The sandwiches looked AMAZING, while my knish was kind of like eating mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy. I am determined to revisit this place on my next trip and order one of those sandwiches.
Obscura Antiques and Oddities is just that, a place to look at and purchase odd stuff. I am drawn to the weird, so this was right up my alley. Old post cards, creepy dolls, taxidermy, and other random items are for sale. I didn’t find anything I was in love with, but it was fun to explore.
Trash & Vaudeville is punk rock, and if you have a love for outlandish shoes this is your place. I found Paddy an awesome button down shirt with jellyfish printed on it. Their lack of plus sizes however was a little disappointing, especially when they carried a lot of brands that made their styles in plus sizes.
Enz’s is a tiny boutique rockabilly clothing shop right next to B&H Dairy. The shop owner was really nice and makes a lot of the dresses herself. I loved a lot of them, but sadly she doesn’t have a lot of plus sizes either.
I stopped by Milk Bar again to try and get a slice of their famous Milk Bar pie, but they were closed for repairs that afternoon.
I ended my evening spending time with Keith and Mike and their friends. This trip I felt like I really got to know New York City outside of the tourist trail. It was nice to have time with friends and to see different neighborhoods without the pressure of trying to check places off of a sight-seeing list. The East Village is my favorite neighborhood in New York, but there is still so much I haven’t seen. So many meals not eaten. There will be other trips to New York City in my future, I can assure you. There is something for everyone in New York.
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Anyone can be a judge at the Coney Island Mermaid Parade. Here’s how to do it, what it costs, and what to expect:
I am not a New Yorker. I’d never even been to Coney Island before. However, when my native New Yorker friend Keith told me about the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade in Brooklyn every June, I ended up planning my entire visit to New York around it. Mermaids, glitter, beaches, summertime–I was in!
When Keith told me we could be judges at the parade, that sounded exciting (and important!) I researched it online, and found only sparse information on the Mermaid Parade FAQ. From what I could find on the web page, being a judge requires a $200 membership donation (tax-deductible). In exchange, you receive a t-shirt, free admission to the Coney Island Museum and sideshow performances all summer long, and a seat on the judge stands. I could only assume that a seat on the judge stands meant not having to stand, and a killer view of the parade. At this point in my life, standing for three hours is not something I am able to do without quite a bit of discomfort, and I was not so interested in doing that in a large crowd in the hot sun without guaranteed decent view of the parade. While expensive, the mermaid parade judgeship was worth it to me for that alone. Keith got us the judgeship tickets, and we were excited.
*Tip: to guarantee a judge spot, book your judge membership tickets early. We bought ours in late winter once I had booked my flights.
Keith and his partner Mike were sent an email about a happy hour meet and greet for the mermaid parade judges in May, and they went. They said they had a great time, and reported to me back in Seattle that all the fellow judges they met were really cool and that they were really looking forward to the parade. Apparently, the happy hour included karaoke where the song choices were limited to Ramones and Rolling Stones songs only.
I made it to New York, we donned sailor outfits, and embarked on the two hour subway journey from Keith’s north Manhattan apartment to Coney Island on parade day.
Our sailor outfits got a lot of attention. We posed for several pictures for and with strangers. Since we were judges, I thought sailor outfits would be appropriate. There were going to be plenty of lovely mermaids at the parade.
The email communication Keith got a day or two before the parade instructed us to report to the judge stand area at noon (parade started at 1:00). After meandering around the boardwalk for a bit, we reported for duty.
We were given a program, judge badge, a t-shirt in the size of our choosing, and some other random swag like Swedish Fish and sunglasses. I was glad that we got there to choose our seats before the judge stand was full, because the stands were only partially shaded. I need shade or I’ll burst into flames.
Here are some more perks of being a judge in addition to shade and seating, now that I have had the experience:
Porta-potties for the judge area only (rarely a bathroom line and not far from your seat!)
If you are someone who wants to be up close and get great photos, you are not limited to sitting in the stands. You can walk up to the barrier and get a great front row view in a section only available to judges (no crowding from the general public). We were able to do this as we felt like it, without worrying about losing our spot on the stands or in the barrier area. There was enough room for everyone.
Complimentary salads and sandwiches. I didn’t get a good look at the food but it seemed that the options were some nice looking BLTs or vegetarian wraps, and salad.
Bribing the judges is encouraged. Parade participants often give candy, crafts, booze, and other gifts to the judges. Some handed out individual gifts and some offered bottles of booze or treats that the MC put out for judges to partake in at their leisure.
*Tip: Bring a small bag to carry your t-shirt and mermaid parade souvenirs/bribes.
Our MC donned a judge robe and wig, and announced each parade group as they came down the parade route. We were given a judge sheet on which to write our top three picks for several different categories, including Best Mermaid, Best Sea Creature, Best Motorized Float, Best Musical Group, Best Neptune, etc.
The participants/groups in the parade all had numbers, but the numbers weren’t always well displayed, and it was hard to keep track of each group. To be honest, I was a pretty terrible judge and was more focused on taking photos and enjoying the parade than remembering to write down various categories.
I think it would be helpful for judges if a list of all the entries for each category were listed on the back of the form with their name/title of the group or costume and the number. Regardless, there were so many good costumes and groups that it was hard to decide.
The parade started leisurely, and included one marriage proposal in the beginning. It was sweet, she said yes, everyone clapped and cheered, the parade went on.
A bit later in the parade, the MC was trying to get everyone to pick up the pace. A second marriage proposal happened, and the proposer was trying to give a big romantic speech. The MC asked loudly into the microphone if they could propose while walking and to hurry it along. I felt kind of bad for them.
*Pro Tip: If you are a participant in the parade and want to propose to a fellow parade participant during the parade, try to make sure you are towards the beginning of the parade procession.
There eventually was a real wedding during the parade as well, which the MC obviously knew about because he alerted us to it ahead of time and officiated the (very quick) ceremony. It was short and sweet and fun. The groom’s ring was a giant inflatable ring that the bride adorned him with.
Towards the end there was a third rushed marriage proposal, and a tractor float had a tire roll off of it, breaking down and leaking brake fluid everywhere. The MC ended up having to try and direct everyone around the float and the parade fell apart a bit. Overall though, the parade was a fabulous display of creativity.
Once the parade was over, we turned in our judge ballots and walked towards the beach. The “Mayor” of Coney Island does an official beach ceremony to officially open the beach for the season following the parade, which we didn’t get over to the beach in time to see. The beach was open, and it was super busy. Lines for the beach bathrooms were very long, so we were glad we made use of our private judge stand porta potties before we headed to the beach.
Advice for Parade-Goers:
I would absolutely recommend being a judge at the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, especially if you are from out of town like me and want to have a unique experience. If spending the dough isn’t for you, I think you can set up camping chairs along the boardwalk parade route, but you’ll need to arrive pretty early and be prepared for rain or shine (umbrella suggested).
Also note that the subway is very crowded to and from Coney Island right before and after the parade. Lines for metro card machines were also long, so be sure to have your metro card balance up before you go so that you don’t have to use the machine (subway is $2.75 each way). I would not recommend driving there if you have a car, traffic and parking I’m sure are atrocious.
Our week-long trip to Paris in November 2018: The Catacombs and their fascinating history, Père Lachaise Cemetery, Sacre Coeur and Montmartre, and exploring the delectable food of the Marais and Bastille neigborhoods.
We had never been to Paris, but always figured we would make it there someday. The food, the architecture, the history, the wine, THE CHEESE–there are so many reasons to visit. We found a good deal on a direct flight to Paris from Seattle over Thanksgiving week, and pulled the trigger.
Everyone has a different opinion on what you HAVE to see in Paris. We decided to follow the advice of the late Anthony Bourdain, who lamented that the worst mistake people make when traveling to Paris is to try to do too much. His advice? Just walk around and eat stuff.
We had six days, and there really is an infinite number of things to do, see, and eat in Paris. I made a list, and then whittled that list down, and then whittled it down some more. The Louvre Museum didn’t even make it onto our list, as it is way too big to see in a week and hoards of tourists pushing and shoving around the Mona Lisa with selfie sticks didn’t appeal to us much. The Palace of Versailles was the first thing I eliminated from my initial itinerary–as much as I wanted to see it, it was an entire day trip and I thought it would be too much for the limited time we had. The Catacombs were number one on my list (and did not disappoint).
Everyone has a different priority of what they really want to do and see, and to each their own. The best advice I can give when planning a trip to Paris, is to ask yourself “Is this attraction something I really want to see, or feel like I should see because it’s famous?” If it falls into the “should see” category, put it on a list of things to see if you end up having time. Be sure to leave some free afternoons for rest or spontaneity, and above all, PACK COMFORTABLE WALKING SHOES. Paris is a very walkable city, and you will be doing a lot of it. The best way to see Paris is on foot.
We arrived in Paris in the afternoon on an overnight flight from Seattle, and located the kiosks for the RER B train into Paris from the airport. Our apartment was located in the Marais neighborhood, which we chose for the cafes, restaurants, and nightlife.
Our route to our apartment required a transfer from the train to the Metro, but because we were exhausted and had luggage we exited the train station at Gare du Nord and called an Uber to transport us the rest of the way.
The owner of the apartment met us in front of the building and got us checked in. We had a reasonably priced studio in walking distance to lots of bars, shops, and restaurants with a cute courtyard view.
We unpacked, rested for a few, and then headed out to find dinner.
I had done quite a bit of research on restaurants in the area before we arrived, and chose Cafe De L’Industrie for it’s good reviews and reasonably priced French fare. The cafe was warm, cute, and busy. They had an English menu upon request, and even though not all the servers understood English and our French was very limited, we had no problem communicating. We had escargot as an appetizer, I had a duck leg confit dish with spiced honey, and Paddy had a hanger steak with au gratin potatoes. Everything was delicious. If you like clams you’ll like escargot. Just forget that it is snails and dive in.
We didn’t know much about French wine, so we asked the server to recommend one of their selections served by the glass. It was fabulous and very affordable. Wine is generally cheaper in France than in the US. You will often pay more for a beer at a bar than for a glass of wine.
Having gotten minimal sleep on the plane, we were pretty tired and didn’t make it past 8:30 PM. We woke up once during the night at 2:00 AM, took some melatonin and went back to sleep.
**Tip: bring melatonin to combat jet lag–the part where you are awake when you don’t want to be.
We had thought ahead and picked up a baguette, butter, ham, cheese, and coffee at the store the night before, so we had a delicious and economical breakfast in the apartment. I don’t know what the French do to their butter that makes it better than every other butter in the world (sorry, even you Ireland). Don’t leave France without slathering their butter on a fresh baguette.
My friend Jenny was traveling around Europe on a photography grant, and decided to meet up with us in Paris for the week. She met up with us at our apartment and we spent the day sightseeing together.
The Metro was very easy to navigate, and is pretty much just like New York or any other major city’s subway system. I was able to get Metro directions on my phone through Google Maps whenever I needed them. Tickets are sold individually for €1.90 each or in packs of 10 for €14.90. Note that you cannot use a metro ticket on the RER trains, but you can transfer from an RER train to the Metro on the same ticket as long as you don’t leave the station.
**Note: Keep your used Metro or RER ticket until you have excited the station. There are periodic ticket checks and you may be asked to show your stamped ticket to verify that you paid. If you do not have your ticket, you will have to pay a €35.00 fine. With RER tickets, you will need to put your ticket through the turnstile again when you leave to exit the station.
We figured we should see the Eiffel Tower first thing, and then spend the rest of the afternoon exploring Saint Germain and the Latin Quarter.
We didn’t feel the need to go up in the Eiffel Tower. It was pretty enough from the ground. There is a park behind it that is probably great for picnics in warmer weather.
We walked along the Seine from the Eiffel Tower towards Saint Germain. It was a bit windy, so we left the riverside and walked in between the buildings for wind blockage. We logged a lot of steps on my fitness watch (23,000 by the end of the day!). We could have taken the Metro, but felt like walking. Saint Germain is a bit more of an upscale neighborhood, and economic cafes and food options seemed a bit more limited. It is a beautiful neighborhood to walk through, however.
We eventually made it to the Latin Quarter, and were ready for a break. I thought maybe we could eat at the famous Les Deux Magots cafe, where Picasso, Rimbaud, Hemingway, and other famous artists and writers used to hang out. However, the casual cafe I was expecting turned out to be a fancy affair with waiters in tuxedos and high prices.
We eventually decided on Relais Odeon cafe, and they were more than happy to welcome Jenny’s dog Luna inside to sit under our table (Paris is a pretty dog-friendly city). The prices were reasonable for a nice lunch with table service. Paddy and Jenny had salads, both said they were really good. Paddy also ordered a pate, and I had the Croque Monsieur sandwich, which came with a small salad and fries.
We wandered around the Latin Quarter a bit more after lunch until our legs and feet began to complain.
When our feet had had enough, we parted ways with Jenny and took the Metro back to our apartment to rest up a bit before dinner.
That evening, I had made a reservation at Restaurant L’ Alivi, an adorable Corsican restaurant in the Marais. Our reservation was for 7:00 PM, which was right when they opened. We were the first and only people in the restaurant and for a short period of time wondered if a reservation had been necessary, until it began to fill up and people were being turned away at the door.
Once the food arrived, we knew why it was so popular. The shining stars for us were the appetizers. Paddy had a creamy bacon soup dish with poached egg and gingerbread croutons (Oeuf Mollet), and I had the chestnut soup with fresh sheep’s cheese (Velouté de chataigne). For the main dish, Paddy had veal with eggplant parmesan (Quasi de Veau rôti) and I had a chicken dish that was part of the day’s special. The main dishes were good, but I’m still thinking about that chestnut soup with the big, melty glob of fresh sheep’s cheese in the middle.
The only thing that made the meal less than amazing was the fact that the heat was turned up to about 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and with every table packed it easily reached 100 degrees. I was thoroughly enjoying my meal but could not stop sweating. The atmosphere was very romantic, but it is hard to feel romantic with beads of sweat forming on your face. Overall, we would absolutely recommend. Hopefully they can get their thermostat sorted out.
We were pretty tired and a bit jet-lagged, so after dinner we picked up a bottle of wine at the grocery store and relaxed in our apartment.
On our second full day in Paris, I had scheduled a guided, skip-the-line special access Catacombs tour. If you would like to visit the Catacombs of Paris, you have three options:
Show up at your leisure, and wait in line (€13)
Pre-purchase a ticket for a specific date and time on their website for quick-access (€29)
Book a guided skip-the-line tour ($91.50)
After reading a lot of reviews, we opted for the guided tour. The tour was for 12:00 PM and included a two hour tour with a knowledgeable tour guide, including parts of the Catacombs that regular visitors do not have access to. This was by and far the best option, albeit more expensive. We booked through Tripadvisor.
We arrived a bit early and walked around the area for about 15 minutes, but it was raining so we eventually went to the Cafe Rendezvous tour meeting point and ordered a cup of coffee while we waited. The line for the standard self-tour of the Catacombs across the street was very long and we were glad we had not opted to wait in line in the rain. The line moves slowly, as only a certain amount of people are allowed in the Catacombs at a time.
**Note: The Catacombs requires descending 131 steps down and 112 steps on the way back up, so it is not recommended for people with limited mobility
Our tour guide was on time, and we walked right in past the long line of waiting people. There were some rules to follow: No selfie sticks or photos with flash, no touching the bones, no large bags, and if you have a small backpack you will need to carry it in front of you in the section containing bones. We had to go through security on the way out and in.
We descended the long spiral staircase and into the tunnels, with our guide stopping to explain the history of the tunnels along the way. The labyrinth of tunnels under the city dates back to medieval times, originally used for limestone quarries. In the late 1700’s, parts of the expanding city began collapsing. The tunnels were then reinforced. The working conditions for reinforcing the tunnels were dangerous, and most of the workers died by age 28 or went blind from working in continuous darkness.
Our guide led us to large areas of the Catacombs that required a guard to unlock gates to let us in and out. One of the unexpected and interesting exhibits were the sculptures done by a man named Décure. Décure created elaborate carvings in secret, and was sadly killed by a tunnel collapse while working.
In 1785, the city’s graveyards were overflowing, and something needed to be done to make room for new burials. Bones were dug up and transported to the Catacombs, creating sectioned “piles” for each graveyard. The femurs and skulls were arranged in front, sometimes artfully, and the rest of the bones were piled behind. Most have a limestone plaque stating what cemetery the bones are from and the dates.
It was eerie and surreal to be among so many bones. We only got to see a portion of them–there are a total of approximately six million corpses in the Paris Catacombs.
There is only a small section of the Catacombs open to the public, and exploring other sections is illegal and dangerous. It is easy to get lost and unable to find a way out. And if your flashlight dies, good luck. That doesn’t stop people, of course. There are “cataphiles” out there, who know secret entrances and exits, have large dance raves and dinner parties in secret rooms, and even built a fully functioning movie theater.
I won’t share all the secrets and history our tour guide gave us, you’ll have to take the tour for yourself. It is a very interesting place with fascinating history, and the tour was 100% worth the price of admission. Book this tour at least a couple weeks in advance, however. It sells out, especially during the busy season.
When the tour was finished, we were pretty hungry. We ended up having lunch at the Fourteen Cafe near the Catacombs exit. We each had a different salad, which weren’t amazing by French standards, but pretty good. I enjoyed the fresh anchovies on my Nicoise salad.
I was excited to try Parisian hot mulled wine as it was cold and we were going into the holiday season. This cafe was my first experience with French vin chaud (hot wine), and it left something to be desired. Instead of hot mulled wine, I got a cup of plain hot wine with a sugar packet and shaker of cinnamon on the side. It was still a nice winter warmer on a cold rainy day, however.
We were pretty tired after lunch and the weather was pretty crappy, so we headed back to the apartment to rest and read for a while.
For dinner, I had made a reservation at Au Passage, a little restaurant right around the corner from our apartment that was featured on the Paris episode of Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover.
Au Passage is a bit of a splurge, and is all small plates to share. The service was excellent, and all the waitstaff spoke English and were more than happy to help translate and describe the menu. We ordered five dishes and a dessert, all were works of art. Our favorite dishes of the evening were the scallop tartare and the veal sweetbreads. Neither of us had eaten sweetbreads before, but when in Paris! The sweetbreads are typically organ meat from the thymus gland and pancreas. These were lightly breaded and sauteed. The texture was a bit like tofu, and they tasted a lot like pork.
After dinner we met up with my friend Jenny again and went to La Fee Verte, an absinthe bar in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. If you’ve never tried absinthe, this is a great place to go. The absinthe menu at La Fee Verte is extensive, and they will bring an old fashioned water fountain over to your table with multiple spouts. You position your glass of absinthe under the spout with an absinthe spoon across the top and a sugar cube on top of the spoon. You turn on the spout so that the water drips slowly onto the sugar and dissolves it, draining through the grate in the absinthe spoon. This creates a “louche” effect turning the absinthe cloudy.
Most absinthe has a strong anise or herbaceous flavor. I can’t drink a lot of it as the anise is a little much for me. If absinthe isn’t your thing, La Fee Verte has plenty of other beverages on their menu as well as food. We didn’t see the green fairy, but we had a good time.
Our final stop of the evening was Le Tiki Lounge, also in the 11th arrondissement, because if there is a Tiki bar, we have to go there.
Le Tiki Lounge was fairly empty, but had a few loyal patrons. Paddy and I both had the La Machete cocktail with tequila and hibiscus. It was pretty tasty. They also carry Hinano beer here, which is very rare in Europe. Obviously, this is because Hinano is from French Polynesia.
The downstairs has a secluded little hangout room which was empty but pretty fun. Overall, it wasn’t my favorite Tiki bar that I’d been to, but it had heart. We were a bit sad that they had sold out of their souvenir Tiki mugs. Maybe next time.
On Wednesday, we thought we’d start the day by exploring the nearby exploring Père Lachaise Cemetery. We knew Père Lachaise was a big cemetery, but we weren’t quite prepared for how big. It is also not flat, and even on the flatter parts the uneven cobblestones are hard on your ankles.
Père Lachaise Cemetery is a beautiful cemetery, however and definitely worth visiting. Everyone goes there to see the final resting place of American poet and musician Jim Morrison, but his grave is one of the least remarkable in the whole place.
It was a bit confusing to navigate, and we ended up using Google Maps a bit. We located Oscar Wilde’s tomb and the family tomb of famous French singer Edith Piaf.
We ended up stumbling onto a row of Holocaust concentration camp memorials that were very moving. Dachau, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Oranienburg and Sachsenhausen each have a specific monument, and the statues on most of them are very sad, a realistic monument to the horrors of the WWII Nazi genocide.
We finally located Jim Morrison’s grave after a hike to the other side of the cemetery.
We were getting hungry and tired of walking around cobblestones, so we ended our tour there. There was a lot more to see, but we had seen all we wanted to.
It did take us a while to find our way out of the walled-in cemetery, and when we did make it out we didn’t know where we were in relation to the Metro. We were tired so we just called an Uber back to Oberkampf Street near our apartment to look for a takeout lunch.
One thing we heard that we should eat in Paris is a roast chicken. We had passed Boucherie Oberkampf on the way to the Metro earlier, and returned as we decided that today was chicken lunch day.
Chickens were twirling around in a giant rotisserie behind the counter, their drippings pooling on the bottom on a pile of small potatoes. We each got a whole chicken leg and a large side of the roasted potatoes for about €6 total. We also picked up a delightful thing with lemon curd and raspberries at a bakery for €3.50. Everything was delicious and it was a very economical lunch.
Later that afternoon, we got on the Metro and headed to the Montmartre neighborhood. We walked up a hill to the Sacre Coeur Basilica.
Paris is mostly flat, but this is an area that requires some climbing. Once we approached Sacre Coeur, we realized (thankfully) that the Metro had let us off halfway up the hill to the Basilica. We kept climbing, taking breaks along the way to rest and enjoy the view. It was close to sunset, and the afternoon sun lit up the Basilica beautifully. If you visit Sacre Coeur, try to visit on a sunny day around sunset. There are lots of places to sit and enjoy the view.
Eventually we made it to the Basilica, which was an impressive site inside and out. There were many signs inside the Basilica that said that photos inside were prohibited, but I noticed a lot of rude tourists clicking away on their phones anyway. There was a service going on, so we stayed on the perimeter so as not to disturb.
After touring the church, we continued past into the Montmartre neighborhood. We were expecting it to be a little touristy, but it was a lot more touristy than I thought it would be. Many tourist shops selling the same things and touts trying to get you to hire them for a portrait drawing on the street. Loud, embarrassing American tourists drinking wine on the cafe terraces.
It was unfortunate, because Montmartre is a very cute neighborhood. I’m sure there is more to see beyond the main tourist area, but we didn’t venture far.
We ducked into a cafe called Aux Petit Creux to have some beer and vin chaud and wait to meet up with Jenny. The vin chaud here was delicious. Very spicy and a little sweet and with an orange slice floating in it. My mulled wine in Paris dreams were fulfilled.
Jenny met us and we had another round of drinks and then headed down the big hill in front of Sacre Coeur towards the Pigalle neighborhood. Sacre Coeur was gloriously illuminated at night as well.
Pigalle is the red light district, but also home to the infamous Moulin Rouge and Paris’ other Tiki bar, Dirty Dick.
We walked down Boulevard de Clichy past tourist shops, adult shops and strip clubs. If you are looking for tits and a souvenir shot glass, this is a one stop shop.
We made it to the Moulin Rouge for a photo op. I had waffled about booking tickets for their show, trying to determine if the price was worth it or if it was too touristy. Ultimately, we decided not to drop the dough. I have had a few friends say they really enjoyed the show, so maybe we’ll check it out next time.
If you are looking for a cabaret show in Paris, Moulin Rouge isn’t the only option. Lido and the Crazy Horse are two other large production cabarets and there are other, smaller productions as well.
We’d had our fill of the sights of Boulevard de Clichy, so we made our pilgrimage to the last stop on our Montmartre/Pigalle neighborhood tour: Dirty Dick Tiki bar.
Dirty Dick was a bit more classic. It was dark and loungey, with a drink menu that was a bit more extensive. The bartenders were friendly and welcoming. Jenny and I shared a volcano bowl, because drinks that are on fire are exciting. When it arrived, the bartender poured cinnamon on the flame to make it flare up dramatically. A+ for presentation!
The volcano bowl was boozy and delicious, with real fruit juices. We were also very excited that they had one last souvenir Tiki mug available, which we purchased. We were there early in the evening, but around 6:30 it started to get very busy with the after-work crowd. Overall, we enjoyed Dirty Dick more than Le Tiki Lounge, but both were really fun. I forgot to ask the bartender at Dirty Dick about the origin of the bar name.
We were tipsy and hungry, and after dropping some dough on a Tiki mug and a volcano bowl we wanted something inexpensive for dinner. We had seen Phil Rosenthal rave about L’ As Du Fallafel on I’ll Have What Phil’s Having, and multiple people had told us to go eat there as well. In fact, on my last day of work before our Paris trip, my boss wished me well and left for the day. He then called me from the parking lot to tell me to make sure to go to the fallafel place.
We took the Metro back to the Marais neighborhood and located L’ As Du Fallafel. The dine-in part of the restaurant was full, but the line was not so long. Unfortunately, they didn’t allow dogs and Jenny had Luna with her. They did however have a take out window, so we ordered to go.
Jenny and Paddy had the fallafel sandwich, and I had the Schawarma sandwich. It was packed full of veggies, sauces, and roasted eggplant. The eggplant was a delicious addition. The only bummer was that there was no where outside to sit. We ended up walking all the way back to our apartment to finish eating, about a 15 minute walk. It wasn’t ideal. The sandwiches were amazing though. Go to the fallafel place.
Our original plan for the day was to get up early, get in line to climb the 387 steps to the top of Notre Dame Cathedral, and then on to more sightseeing. However, after the crazy amount of walking we had done in the last three days, we were tired. Sometimes, you need to get over your FOMO (fear of missing out) on major tourist attractions and realize that all that matters on a trip is that you had a great day. We scratched all of our touristy day plans, and ended up having the best day of our whole trip.
We slept in, and then walked down to the Bastille neighborhood, stopping at a bakery along the way for a snack. We went to Foot Massage by Bansabai and treated ourselves to a 30 minute foot massage to restore our worn-out feet.
Feeling refreshed, we wandered around Bastille. We poked around in shops and markets and tasted cheese.
Oh yes, THE CHEESE. We ducked into the Fromagerie Laurent Dubois on Rue Saint-Antoine and tasted some of their amazing cheeses. We purchased a creamy one to eat with breakfast the next morning, and were tempted by a firmer cheese infused with black truffle. We weren’t sure if we could bring it back through customs. I read the customs guidelines online and it seems that firmer cheeses that are sealed well can usually be brought back to the US. The friendly shop staff vacuum-sealed it for us and we did manage to get it back home.
**Note on US customs: Soft cheeses are not allowed through customs. Fruit, vegetable and meat products are not allowed into the US unless they are canned, and no beef products from Europe are allowed in at all. If you are bringing something back, ALWAYS declare it. The worst that can happen is that you get it taken away. If you don’t declare and they find it, you will face a $10,000 fine. More info here.
We ate lunch at a restaurant called Au Bouquet Saint Paul, mostly because they had a cheese and charcuterie plate on the menu and we wanted to keep sampling cheese. I had a shrimp and avocado appetizer as well, which was sort of like guacamole with mayo and shrimp with a side salad.
After a nice lunch with wine we did a little more shopping and poked into a little bakery to get some pastries to go. I wish we had had more time to sample more of all the gorgeous French pastries that were on display in all the bakeries, but there are really only so many pastries one can consume in a week. We got a chocolate eclair, a chocolate ganache thing with a chocolate flower on top, and a pistachio “escargot” pastry. The eclairs in France are a fraction of the size of the eclairs in the US, and with much more flavor.
Later that evening, we did have one touristy item on our agenda: a champagne tasting boat tour on the Seine. Tourism that involves sitting and drinking champagne while sightseeing was exactly the kind of tourism that we were in the mood for that day.
I had booked the tour through Viator. It was a one hour river cruise on one of the tour boats open to everyone. However, if you booked the champagne tasting cruise you got priority boarding, a private area at the front of the boat, and a sommelier pouring you glasses of three different champagnes while pointing out the various buildings and historical sights along the way.
The tour departed from the front of the Eiffel Tower at 6:00 PM, which we had not yet seen lit up at night yet so that was an added bonus. We arrived a bit early, so we sat and had a drink in a heated tent near the boat dock.
The champagne tour was nice, and the sommelier was liberal with his champagne pours. I think that for sightseeing you would see more of Paris from the Seine in the daytime, but whatever. We were mostly there for the champagne.
When the tour ended at 7:00 PM, we rushed off the boat to catch the hourly Eiffel Tower light show that happens on the hour after dark. It was impressive–both with the light show and with just the regular nighttime illumination. Seeing the Eiffel Tower at night was the highlight of the sightseeing tour, even though it wasn’t actually part of the tour.
After the tour we were hungry (and a little buzzed). I had researched Spanish restaurants in Paris for a little change up from French food, and we took an Uber back to the Marais for dinner at Le Jamoncito.
Le Jamoncito is a small, adorable little Spanish tapas restaurant tucked in a small side street in the heart of the Marais nightlife. The restaurant owner was welcoming, and more than happy to recommend his favorite dishes when we asked. Before we knew it we had a slew of dishes being brought to our table, all of them were amazing.
At the recommendation of the restaurant owner who was serving us, we ordered a selection of cured Spanish ham, a dish with octopus and potatoes (pulpo a la gallega), a white fish and roasted red pepper salad, fresh anchovy toasts, and another cured ham toast with tomatoes and olive oil. We LOVED all the French food we had in Paris, but the Spanish tapas at Le Jamoncito ended up being our favorite meal of the trip. The food was delicious, the atmosphere was adorable and romantic, and the owner was very friendly and obviously proud of the food he served.
After dinner, we walked around the Marais a bit. Some of the streets had Christmas lights up, which was fun to see. Overall, it was a great day.
On our last day, we figured we should do some last minute touristy stuff. Our first stop was the Notre Dame Cathedral. It was extremely foggy, so we didn’t bother trying to get to the top to see the gargoyles and the view. I can’t say I’m super sorry about not climbing all those steps, but I have heard the view is great.
Both the interior and exterior of the cathedral are very impressive and intricate. It is free to go inside the cathedral (you only have to pay if you want to climb to the top). Signs showed photography allowed without a flash, at least that I saw. There was a choir singing when we entered, so we sat for a few minutes and marveled at the acoustics. It was really beautiful.
After Notre Dame, we walked a block over to visit the Conciergerie. The Conciergerie building dates back to medieval times when it was built as a palace. It was later converted into a prison, and was the primary prison during the French Revolution. It’s most famous prisoner was Marie Antoinette, who was held in the Conciergerie for several months prior to her execution in 1793. Admission is €15.00
The Conciergerie was pretty interesting, but of all the things we saw and did in Paris, it was probably the least exciting for me. If you are short on time and trying to whittle down your sightseeing list, you might consider cutting this one out. I would recommend the Conciergerie to someone who is very interested in the history of the French Revolution and medieval architecture. If that’s not your thing, consider skipping it.
Later in the afternoon, we ventured out again to the La Defense Christmas market. I really wanted to see a European Christmas market, and La Defense was the only one open, having just opened the day before. (Most of the Christmas markets in Paris don’t open until after December 1st). I read that it was the largest and best Christmas market, albeit a bit far from the city center.
On the way we got off the Metro and stopped at the Arc de Triomphe for a quick photo. The Arc de Triomphe is one of the largest tourist attractions in Paris, and you can climb to the top if you like. We just opted for a quick photo op from the street.
La Defense is the modern business district of Paris, with modern skyscrapers. It is a bit of a metro ride away from the main tourist areas of Paris, but not too far. There is also a huge shopping mall there. If you are looking for history and culture in Paris, La Defense is the opposite experience. La Defense is a very modern and commercial part of the city.
The Christmas market was in full swing on it’s second night. After passing through security at one of the multiple entrances, you can wander around rows of huts selling various gifts and foods. There were quite a few food stands as well selling soups, sandwiches, Mexican cuisine, churros, crepes, vin chaud (hot spiced wine), and other items. We shared a foie gras sandwich and then got some vin chaud and walked around.
We ended up purchasing some truffle oil products. Many vendors had tasting samples to try. Overall, I think I enjoyed myself more than Paddy did. Christmas markets aren’t really his thing.
There were some Christmas light displays to wander around in as well.
By the time we made it back to the Metro, we were tired and ready to sit down and have a drink. The Metro was a bit crazy as it was rush hour, which made the ride back a little claustrophobic.
We ended the evening with beers at Le Black Dog, a heavy metal bar in the Marais that was on Paddy’s list of bars he wanted to visit. It was small and crowded, but the bartenders were friendly and we managed to snag the last table.
We were to fly out the next day, and I received an email that evening notifying us that our direct flight back to Seattle was cancelled and we were on a later flight with a layover in Los Angeles. We didn’t get our reserved two-seat row selection that we had paid extra for, and got home at 3:00 AM Sunday morning instead of 11:00 AM Saturday morning. We weren’t pleased, to say the least. I contacted Air France to get a refund of our reserved seat fee, and to our surprise we got our reserved seat fee back plus €600.00 each! Apparently, there is a law within the European Union that passengers are due compensation if a flight is cancelled or delayed for reasons other than weather.
*Pro tip: If your flight is cancelled or delayed in Europe, always check to see if you are due compensation. A friend of mine said he has received €200.00 before for a flight that was delayed over two hours in Europe.
We absolutely loved Paris. There were a lot of things we wanted to see and do that we didn’t have time (or make time) for, but I have a feeling that we will be back someday. We would love to see France’s wine country as well, and explore more of French cuisine. There is also so much history and beautiful architecture to explore in Paris. Having spent a week there, I would absolutely agree with Anthony Bourdain’s advice. Don’t try to pack too much in. Pick one or two things to see/do for each day, and fill the rest in with spontaneity and wandering. Walk around and eat stuff. You won’t be disappointed.
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