Thursday, January 27, 2011

Travel Bucket List: Main Must-Sees

Inspired by a 30-day challenge that I'm doing in my personal blog, I've decided to write up a few different travel bucket lists for myself! I'm such a travel nut, though, that I've decided to break down these lists as follows:
  1. Main Must-Sees
  2. Less Pressing Locales
  3. Specific Sights
  4. Revisits!
Today I'm going to focus on my "Main Must-Sees"...places that I just feel an absolute need to visit. There are plenty of places I'd love to see some day, but when I think "I really need to go here or my life won't feel complete", these are the places that come to mind :)

  • Israel - Having been raised in a very religious home, although I am more spiritual than religious visiting the Holy Land has been and always will be my biggest travel goal!
  • Australia - I've always been intrigued by Australia, but I also have friends that live there so that's what makes it second on this list :)
  • Egypt - The pyramids? Cairo? Alexandria? This one is self-explanatory.
  • Costa Rica - Jurassic Park is set there and as such I've wanted to visit since reading the book.
  • Germany - I come from German stock, so I want to explore my roots.
  • Sweden - I'm also Swedish, so see above ;)
  • England - One word: London. One name: Jane Austen.
  • Thailand - This has been a dream of mine since I saw the movie The Beach. I just think Thailand looks like this wonderful mecca of both paradise-like beaches and an amazing amount of culture and history.
  • South Africa - Five years ago I probably would have said Kenya, but now that I've known a few people who have traveled/lived in South Africa I have changed my mind :)
  • Peru - This is thanks to the movie The Emperor's New Groove. Don't judge.
  • Brazil - Just because.
  • Bora Bora/Tahiti - Yes, I know that they're not the same place, but basically I just want to visit some amazingly pristine island in this area of the South Pacific.
  • As many of the US States as possible! (Needless to say, at the moment I've got 32 checked off already, I think I'm doing all right!) - This is another goal I've had for quite a while, and as such it has been fairly easy for me to check off so many states. I do not count layovers in airports as having been in a state; however, if I drive through a state I do count it because at that point I feel as if I've seen some of what the place has to offer. And I tend to return to states that I've driven through eventually, and stay in them, so there's that. However, I do have some states that are "more important" to check off than others, those being: Idaho, Montana, Hawaii, Missouri (because I want to visit St. Louis) and Oregon (I'm intrigued by Portland).
This year, if all goes as planned, I will check one more US state off my list, as well as Germany :) This list is actually much shorter than it would have been, say, five years ago considering I've checked off places like New Orleans, Chicago, Paris, Amsterdam, Switzerland, etc. But I've still got pretty far to go...

Monday, January 24, 2011

Hotel Review: Four Seasons Vancouver

I stayed here for one night before embarking on a Princess Alaska Cruise Tour. The price was exorbitant but well worth it, as this hotel had, very possibly, the most comfortable hotel bed I've ever slept in. All of the front desk/concierge/bellstaff were friendly and helpful, and the hotel location was ideal as it was an easy walk to the Gastown area as well as being part of the Pacific Centre mall.

One thing I will say is that even for a Four Seasons, the food--especially the room service and the dinner at the main restaurant--was ridiculously overpriced. We stayed at a Renaissance Marriott in Seattle at the end of our trip and the room service prices were literally half that of the prices at this hotel. All in all though, due to the comfort of the room, the location of the hotel, and the staff, our stay at the Four Seasons Vancouver was a great one.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Time I "Chose" Chicago

Last spring (mid-April to be exact), thanks to the hospitality of my very close friend Andy and his girlfriend Becky, we spent a busy, fun- and food-filled few days in the Windy City. This trip was actually both mine and Steve's first time visiting Chicago, and the only expectations we had were that we wanted a fun weekend away, and that we wanted to give Andy and Becky the opportunity to show us their favorite parts of the area. Oh, and pizza. Lots of pizza.

When we arrived on Thursday and the flight attendant mentioned that it was 80 degrees, we assumed that she was mistaken--but she wasn't! Unfortunately, that weather didn't exactly hold out for the rest of the weekend...but at least we were spared any rain, I suppose. As we didn't even arrive at Andy's house in Aurora (hometown of Wayne and Garth of Wayne's World fame!) until nearly 7 PM, we decided to spend the evening out in the 'burbs and went to The Foundry to grab dinner and drinks. After a somewhat mediocre experience (the service was terrible, the food and drinks average, but I can see how it would be a fun place if there was a big sporting event going on--lots of TVs, a big, open building, etc.) we returned to the house to hang out, catch up, and drink a few beers.

As it was vacation, Steve and I wanted to sleep in on Friday. We hadn't done much of that on our previous vacation (New Orleans) and we really didn't have a set schedule for Chicago; it felt good to not set an alarm clock! And we were still out of the house by lunchtime, to grab food at a Portillo's before heading downtown. Now, I'm not a huge hot dog fan, but Portillo's "Chicago style" hot dogs impressed both of us!

Once we arrived and parked downtown, it was a walk through Millennium Park to see "The Bean" and the beautiful tulips. Also nearby is the building that is in many scenes of the movie Adventures in Babysitting, which was fun to see. Personally I don't get "The Bean" any more than Andy and Becky do (they were joking about it as we walked to the park) but hey...that's modern art for ya. (At least in my opinion)

Had it been rainy or cloudy we may not have done the following activity, that being a visit to the Sears--I mean, Willis--Tower, including paying the ::cough::somewhat exorbitant fee::cough:: to take the elevators up. However, thanks to a beautiful clear day got some great views of the city. I have to be honest, though--the little "observation booths" with the clear floors were a bit much for yours truly.

As we walked back to his car, Andy pointed out a few of the places where The Dark Knight was filmed. Although I'm not a big fan of that particular movie, it was really neat to hear Andy talk about what it was like to see it being filmed in his city over a period of time. Yet another reason why it's always fun to have a local "tour guide"!

That night we ate at a Lou Malnati's in downtown Naperville, Illinois. The pizza (including the Chocolate Chip dessert pizza) was some of the best I've ever had! Of course, I love pizza and prefer deep-dish over thin crust anyway, which helped my opinion ;o) And Naperville was beautiful as well. We were actually really happy to see some areas other than just downtown Chicago, and downtown Naperville was so similar to downtown Greenville that we couldn't help but love it at first sight.

Wrigley Field
After Malnati's, we were full and tired; knowing we needed to get up early the next day for the Cubs vs. Astros game at Wrigley, we decided to call it a night.

Our final day in Chicago was long, tiring, and admittedly...a bit too cold for our liking. (So much for that 80 degree weather they bragged about upon our arrival.) However, it was also an absolute blast! We began the day with a train ride into the city and a baseball game. Unfortunately, the Cubs lost--despite numerous stupid mistakes made by the Astros--but even though we were pretty much freezing up in the stands, we made the best of it with hot Irish coffees and the promise that after the game, we would be walking in the sun, where it was just a little bit warmer ;o)

Dinner that evening was at the Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder, and this truly was a different kind of pizza. Andy described it as "pizza pot pies" and that's pretty much what they were! (Besides being delicious, of course.) This restaurant is actually located across the street from the site of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, but nowadays there isn't really much to see dealing with that. Not surprisingly, Chicago isn't exactly proud of what happened that day in 1929. (Right after we returned from our trip, I wrote a comparison post of Malnati's and the Oven Grinder--check it out here!)

We topped off our last day with a night out at the Tilted Kilt in the West Loop. It was...interesting, to say the least. Basically a Scottish/Irish themed Hooters, and apparently the people who thought up this restaurant don't know or understand that the Scottish and Irish don't really, err, care for each
Site of the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre...shhh!
other. Steve and I didn't have anything to eat, but apparently the food is pretty good; the drinks, on the other hand, weren't very impressive. At least, the special ones on their menu aren't--I tried a cucumber/gin concoction that could and should have been good, but tasted like honeydew melon lotion smells; Steve ordered a rum/ginger/orange bitters drink that sounded similar to a Dark & Stormy but tasted so bad that he complained about it (which is unusual for him). As it was, by about 10 PM we--along with Andy and Becky--were too tired to wait for the after-midnight train and decided to call it a night. We grabbed some 24 ounce beers from a nearby 7/11 (to enjoy on the train--you have no idea how excited we were that one could drink on the would have been a long hour back to Aurora without that beer) and made it back to Chicago's Union Station with plenty of time to spare.

Last but not least, on our way to the airport we made a quick stop at White Castle for hangover food...and I don't care what anyone says, Krystal and White Castle taste exactly the same. I have to say that this was one city where I was happy to have some great tour guide friends, and I hope to some day get back to Chicago...if only to stuff myself, once again, with pizza and hot dogs!
Famous Chicago Bridges & the Sun-Times building!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Table 301's Devereaux's, Courtesy of Restaurant Week

It's that time of year again--Restaurant Week in Greenville! Unfortunately, this year our budget only allows us to go out once and we chose Deveraux's, which is probably Table 301's most high-end offering.

The Restaurant Week menu at Devereaux's was in our minds one of the more diverse and yet still only $30 for three courses; that, combined with the fact that we hadn't eaten here yet, is what sealed the deal on choosing this particular restaurant. We were not disappointed!

Before our appetizer choices were served, we enjoyed samples of a fennel soup enhanced with lemon juice that was absolutely delicious. The bread came next--a tasty cheddar and chive biscuit and what I think was a honey wheat roll or something of the sort. Unfortunately I found the latter a bit hard and dry for my taste.

For the first course Steve had the Rabbit Risotto and I chose the Butternut Squash soup. Please excuse the lack of photos--neither of these was a terribly photogenic dish, but I assure you that they were both amazing. It is easy to miscook rabbit or make a butternut squash dish that is too bland, but Devereaux's didn't have either of those problems.

Devereaux's Scottish Salmon
Our entrees were the Scottish Salmon and the Roasted Duck Breast. The salmon was served with a sort of watercress broth; personally I prefer my salmon with a thicker, sweeter sauce but the fish itself was at least high quality and cooked to perfection.

And the duck...oh, the duck! This dish was by far the best duck I have ever had. Also cooked to perfection and served with amazing compliments--basmati rice, sun dried cherries, carrots, etc--I simply couldn't get enough. I seriously could have ordered this dish times three and still wanted more! Not to mention the beautiful presentation:
Devereaux's Roasted Duck
Last but not least, usually my favorite course: dessert! Steve chose the Apple Bread Pudding with Maple Brown Sugar ice cream, which I of course got to sample; I was a bit more "adventurous" and had the Rosemary Funnel Cake with Pumpkin Crisp Ice Cream. Unfortunately, at this point my camera decided to quit working and I didn't get any pictures--but while the bread pudding probably looked more appetizing, I was more than pleasantly surprised with my funnel cake. This wasn't your county fair funnel cake, folks--it had a rich brown color and a mere dusting of confectioner's sugar, a crisper texture and the pumpkin ice cream was a perfect complement. If I ever return to Devereaux's, I at least know what I'm ordering for dessert!

We had also opted for the wine pairings, an additional $15. They served us a Chardonnay with our appetizers, a Merlot with our main course and a Port with dessert. I think a white wine would have been better paired with the salmon and a dessert wine rather than a port with our "sweets", but all three options were at least good of their own accord.

On a final note, despite the restaurant being very crowded (to the point where the hostess even commented as we were leaving that we should come back on a more "normal" night) the service was still good and the atmosphere pleasing. Devereaux's is a hit in my book--in fact, I'd rank it with American Grocery and I certainly think it was better than High Cotton, which are both supposedly in the Devereaux's "class" when it comes to downtown Greenville restaurants.

Devereaux's on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 14, 2011

Christmastime in Charleston

I realize that this post is a bit out of season and I should have written it a month ago, but life got a little hectic and here I am. With an upcoming trip to Charleston (this one actually happening before the aforementioned Nashville trip!) I wanted to get it out of my system and write about my very first trip to Charleston--which, as the title of this entry implies, happened during the Christmas season. I've already reviewed the hotel we stayed at, the Holiday Inn Historic District, which I absolutely recommend especially if you've never been to Charleston before. The concierge--a free service--is amazing!

That said, Christmas really is an amazing time to visit this city. The weather is a bit cooler, of course, but if you're lucky you will see sunny and 60 degrees as we did on our visit. And the decorations and special activities are plentiful! We were only there from about 4 PM on Friday until maybe noon on Sunday and that definitely wasn't long enough. Upon arrival we had our first dinner at Poogan's Porch, which has consistently been rated one of the best restaurants in Charleston. Considering that and the quality of their food (everything was delicious!), the prices were reasonable and if you're looking for a Travel Channel-recognized, reasonably priced meal I recommend checking it out.

We even fit in a tour on our first evening, as the Edmonston-Alston house runs candlelight holiday tours around Christmas. The house was filled with period Christmas decorations to complement the approximately 90 percent authentic furnishings throughout, and on top of that I can now say that I've been to the place where General P.T. Beauregard watched the shelling of Fort Sumter--not to mention the fact that it even sheltered General Robert E. Lee for a night!

Now, the one thing this trip didn't include was nightlife, as I was visiting with my mother. But that doesn't mean that we didn't have one heck of a good time. We were up and at 'em early on Saturday morning in order to visit the Farmer's Market on Marion Square, which was pretty happening this time of year as local artists and farmers were offering their wares and goods as Christmas gifts. The market only took us about an hour or so to explore, though, which left the rest of the morning for a tour. We had originally planned on doing a walking tour, but this is where the concierge came in--he suggested that we take a riding tour, with an older woman who had not only lived in Charleston all her life, but had been one of the first people in the city to receive a tour manager card.

View of Charleston on our "driving" tour
Unfortunately, I have since lost the business card of this amazing lady and can't seem to find her on the internet. But despite her tour being twice the cost of a walking tour, it was worth every penny. We saw far more of the city, heard not just the usual history but many personal anecdotes from our guide, and as she knew practically everyone we passed we even got to do some other special activities--such as tour the private garden of one of her friends.

Once our tour was over we were starving and headed to Hyman's Seafood on Meeting Street. This restaurant is also dubbed one of the "must-eat" locations in Charleston and while we certainly enjoyed our meal, I wasn't overly impressed with it. However, I am fully prepared to admit that that is more because of my tastes than anything Hyman's did "wrong". I grew up on seafood from Cape Cod and Maine and that's my style--fresh, not fried, basically. I've never been big on the way Southerners serve their seafood and Hyman's is no exception. Still, the experience was fun and if you're not super picky about your seafood I can safely say that Hyman's is a great place for a meal.

City Market's main building
The rest of our Saturday afternoon was spent at the City Market, which is full of everything from kitschy Confederacy "souvenirs" and cheap jewelry to tin baskets hand painted with Charleston scenes and two-foot-tall Santa Clauses made out of cypress knees...and of course the ubiquitous Charleston basket weavers! We perused the market for a couple of  hours and even that wasn't long enough; but things were winding down for the day and we had a special holiday season activity that night--the Progressive Dinner.

Unfortunately, this Progressive Dinner--offered by the Charming Inns company who runs the Kings Courtyard Inn, Circa 1886 and the John Rutledge House Inn--was the "lowlight" of our trip. I am extremely open-minded when it comes to food and will try anything--and although I don't remember the exact offerings (and they change almost every year anyway) I wasn't impressed with any of them or pleased by many of them, either. It was certainly interesting to visit these historic places, and the carriage rides between them were pleasant, but I really wouldn't suggest this as a dinner option in Charleston. There are so many other amazing Charleston restaurants that are less expensive and have more and probably better food to offer.
My mom, my sister and I on one of the Progressive Dinner carriage rides
When our Progressive Dinner was [finally] over, we called it a night back at the hotel and were packed and leaving Charleston just after breakfast the next morning. Yes, it was quite a short stay, but considering this is a far less crowded time of year and how many beautiful Christmas decorations we saw, Charleston on a December weekend is tops in my book :o)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Hotel Review: Disney's Port Orleans Resort, French Quarter

The French Quarter's sister hotel, the Port Orleans Riverside, is one of my favorite Disney resorts; I was excited to see what the French Quarter was all about. Needless to say, I wasn't disappointed--the grounds were nice, the resort was clean, the room was exactly what I assumed it would be for one of Disney's "moderate" resorts--and I actually really liked the smaller atmosphere of the French Quarter. Admittedly, the gift shop left something to be desired, and if I was staying a whole week (I was only there for three nights) I probably wouldn't want to stay here because of the limited resources.

The only complaint I had was that the pool was closed! It was a little cool to go swimming while we were there, but my complaint hedges on the fact that Disney did not communicate to us at any point in time that the pool would be closed for renovations during our stay. They are usually good about this, so I am not sure what happened. Between this issue and the lack of amenities offered at French Quarter, it wouldn't be my first pick of the Disney moderate resorts, but if you find yourself in a situation like mine (all the other moderate resorts being booked solid) the French Quarter is certainly a fine option.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Nashville Conference Time!

Some years ago (I won't put a number to them, but you will see by the pictures included in this entry that I was quite young) I attended a conference at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. Although the majority of my time was spent working, therefore leaving next to no time for sightseeing, I was able to spend quite a bit of time exploring the Opryland Hotel during conference breaks. That in itself made this trip far more fun than it would have been had we attended a conference in some boring old conference center!

I decided to write about this now because Steve and I plan to go to Nashville in a few months--he's never been--and as I have two previous Music City trips under my belt, I figured it would be a good idea to recap them before posting about a more recent one. Nashville really is a great city and I have to say, I'm excited to get back there and do some more "touristy" activities!

I think this was the time that we showed up at the conference and UPS or someone had lost our booth. Hence the fact that we have our brochures and giveaways but our backdrop is, well, boring. But I wanted to include this picture to give y'all a good laugh at how little I am ;o) (that's me, the blond girl sitting down on the left--want to guess my age?)

Anyway, during this trip we stayed at an Embassy Suites. It was so long ago now that I don't even remember where the hotel was, really--I just remember that it was in the middle of nowhere. I think there was a Mexican restaurant and a Wendy's nearby--that's it. We went to downtown Nashville two of the nights we were there and it was a 20-30 minute drive; likewise, the Opryland Hotel was a good 15-20 minutes away. At least. This was due to the fact that we decided to attend this conference fairly last minute and the Opryland was booked solid. Sad.

The first night we went into Nashville we ate at a not-so-memorable steakhouse that was in a sort of warehouse district. The other night we ventured out, we went to the Wild Horse Saloon. The food was decent--nothing special--but I loved that they taught line dances while we were there! The young me was a little more brave about stuff like this. I'm not sure if I would get up and learn a line dance nowadays, but I think it would still be fun to watch!

As I said before, though, the majority of this trip was spent at the Opryland hotel, and even though I worked--a lot--I did get long breaks every couple of hours. Once my co-worker Renee (the dark-haired girl in the pictures) and I had visited practically every booth at the conference (mainly to collect all the fun giveaways!) we spent our time exploring the hallways, shops and of course the atriums! One could literally spend an entire day wandering around this hotel and never get bored. If you ever have a chance to visit Nashville, I suggest doing just that--show up at the Opryland Hotel and literally get lost inside of it. You won't be disappointed!

On top of all that, the Opryland made one of the fastest cleanups after the May 2010 floods in Nashville and is boasting that it is better than ever. I know I can't wait to check it out again on my next trip out there!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Year, New Restaurant, Good Times!

Last year, we went out for New Year's Eve and kind of wished we hadn't. Not that we didn't have a good time, but at the end of the night the idea of staying home with a bottle of champagne and some movies sounded a lot more relaxing than going downtown, finding parking, pushing our way into a crowded get the gist.

This year, we definitely entertained the idea of staying in--until an event  with The Greenville Wine Meetup caught my attention. Apparently, Table 301--a Greenville restaurant company that owns some of the best places in town--is opening a new restaurant. And for $25 per person we would get a New Year's Eve party complete with heavy h'ordeuvres, live music and a champagne toast at midnight. On top of that, we would be the first people in Greenville to see the new restaurant and know its name! Needless to say, we couldn't pass up this opportunity. We bought our tickets and headed out on New Year's Eve for what we hoped would be a memorable night.

Upon arrival at the new restaurant, we immediately received a pamphlet about the new restaurant, which is apparently named Nose Dive. And I have to be honest, we're not too keen on the name. However, everything else about this place seems to be on the up-and-up. To wit:

-The location. Smack dab in the central area of downtown, right next to the Westin Poinsett on South Main. Enough said.

-The decor and layout. Simple to the point of being spartan, but in a sleek way that foretells this becoming another success for Table 301. I hope that the table layout downstairs remains similar as it was nice to not be crowded in a somewhat small space. The fact that there are bars both upstairs and down is a huge plus as well, and I cannot say enough good things about the booths that they installed upstairs. Red cushioned booths, intimate enough on their own, but with the added plus of curtains that I'm guessing can be drawn to give one even more privacy, if desired.

-The drink menu. Nose Dive promises both a good wine selection and a decent beer selection. Maybe not long lists of either, but a good mix of small-batch brews and both reasonably priced and higher-end wines are combinations that many restaurants lack.

-The food. Now, we only had h'ordeuvres, but if the selection and quality they offered on New Year's Eve foretells what will be on the menu, this is a definite winner. Table 301 is referring to Nose Dive as a "gastropub", and between the gourmet mini-burgers, Reuben sandwiches, duck with a sort of apple confit, and amazing cheese selection they were offering the other night, we absolutely cannot wait to experience the full menu. It's about time Greenville had some true pub fare, especially when that fare is slightly higher-end.

-The service. The bartenders were kept busy all night, but when they needed extra help it was there and we never waited more than five minutes or so to order a drink. Busboys were a constant, quietly coming round to pick up empty glasses and napkins as needed. And that champagne toast at midnight? They brought the drinks out right on time and emptied trays quite efficiently. As far as I could tell, anyone who wanted a glass of champagne had one (or more!) by 11:55 or so, and as we left we were given more incentive to come back in the form of invitations to join their wine club and great Nose Dive t-shirts.

All in all, not only was this a great, different way to spend our New Year's Eve, but it made us all the more excited for this new Table 301 restaurant and as per the usual, was yet another notch in the belt for how much we love Greenville.

Happy New Year from your favorite Southern Yankees ;o)