Friday, October 28, 2011

Eurotrip 2011: The Beginning

Around 12:30 PM on Friday August 5th (2011, of course), Steve and I loaded two backpacks, a duffel bag, and two giant suitcases into my parents' SUV. A few minutes later we were on the road from Greenville to Charlotte, ready to embark on the 17 day Eurotrip that we had been planning for nearly three years.

That's right - three years. And during that time it had evolved a lot. In the beginning we thought "hey, we'll do it all on our own. Maybe start in London, visit Amsterdam and Paris, end up on the southern coast of France to visit Steve's old stomping grounds in Marseille, and maybe even trek down to Morocco.

Unfortunately, even thinking about planning a trip like that started to give me a headache. Which brought on phase 2: a cruise! And we found one, over a year in advance - roundtrip Rome to some Italian ports, some Greek ports, some Israeli ports and even Egypt. With of course, the scheduled stop in Marseille for Steve, either pre- or post-cruise.

Fast forward a few months, though, and I'm adding up cruise fare, tips, and flight prices and thinking "this is just getting ridiculous". On top of that, one thing a cruise wouldn't really allow was for us to truly experience the culture, food and nightlife of the places we were visiting. Then, thanks to a conversation with a friend of mine who lives in Australia, a new idea was born - a second Contiki trip!
Said friend, Natalie, quickly agreed to meet us on the trip of our choice. Because she's awesome like that. And choosing a trip actually wasn't much of an issue - I knew that this time around, I wanted less hours on a bus and more nights per city, so Contiki's 12-day Berlin to Budapest tour was right up our alley! Of course we still planned on tacking on some days in Marseille, but we had our Contiki tour booked before 2010 was over - and in January 2011, after much fiddling with our exact pre- and post-tour ideas, we purchased our plane tickets as well. The schedule?

August 5th: Fly Charlotte to Berlin via Frankfurt
August 6th - 16th: Contiki Berlin to Budapest tour (Berlin, Prague via Dresden, Vienna via Kutna Hora, Budapest via Bratislava - all by bus of course)
August 16th - 19th: Fly Budapest to Marseille (via Munich) & Aix-en-Provence
August 19th - 21st: Fly Marseille direct to Frankfurt, spend two nights and fly direct back to Charlotte on the 21st

As you can see, our plate was full (and after buying all of those plane tickets, my wallet was really freaking empty)...but after months of guide-book reading, money-saving, and clothes-purchasing and we were ready.

So folks, get ready. Because for the next couple of weeks, this travel blog is going to be Europe-heavy. Just like all that food we ate in the Eastern Bloc.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Sippin' Safari, Take 2

Last year's Sippin' Safari at the Greenville Zoo was plenty of fun, so of course we decided to hit it up again this year. Only this time, we didn't spring for VIP tickets...because last year we didn't feel as if they were worth it. The VIP section was shoved off in the back corner of the zoo, away from everything. They didn't really have that many extra wines to taste and the food was all of the cheese-and-cracker variety. We got cute little beanie flamingos but, well, we're grown-ups and don't need cute little beanie flamingos. VIP tickets are allowed entrance half an hour earlier, but Sippin' Safari is on a Friday night and us being grown-ups, we can't get there early enough to make that extra half hour truly count. Considering the difference in ticket price (literally double the cost - $30 for regular tickets vs. $60 for VIP), we simply couldn't justify it this year.

Of course, as luck would have it, this year they moved the VIP section to an area right smack in the middle of the zoo and were giving out nice-as tote bags rather than stupid beanie animals. But what can you do?

We arrived at about 6:20, ten minutes before the gates opened to all us "regular" people. I would say that we were inside by about 6:35 or so, even though the line was a bit long - they actually opened the gates a few minutes early. Now, last year we were shuffled to the left so that we could "experience" the VIP area - which means that I had no idea whatsoever that just off to the right are the Greenville Zoo's elephants!
After that we were of course free to wander, munch and sip on the great food and wine offerings presented by Bi-Lo!

Visiting our favorites...the Siamang Gibbons!

And our second favorite...the leopard! It always has good poses for us.

And of course...another good kitty.

Now...I have to take a moment to say one thing and one thing only: Dear Greenville Zoo & Bi-Lo, can you please have Sippin' Safari on a Saturday or Sunday? Because although the event lasts until 10 PM, by about 8:30 most (if not all) of the animals are away for the night...which takes away basically all of the atmosphere. Last year they left the reptile house open a bit later, and that helped, but this year it was locked by 8 PM! What's up with that???

To be honest, Sippin' Safari is fun. Especially if you've never been. As I said, you get to sample lots of tasty food and wine; doing it in a zoo just makes everything better. But now that we've been for two years in a row, we may just skip a year.

Unless of course they reschedule it for a Saturday or Sunday in 2012...then we're totally down. Just sayin'.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Guidebook Review: Fodor's Caribbean 2012

Great Comprehensive Caribbean Guidebook.

First and foremost: Warning! This guidebook is not one for the budget-minded traveler. But then again, Fodor's usually aren't the guides one should peruse if you're traveling on a shoe string ;)

Having traveled to Jamaica for a full week and otherwise only visited the Caribbean on cruises (4 of them, to be exact), I can definitely recommend this guidebook if you are (a) trying to decide where to go and want a brief overview of many popular islands, (b) going on a Caribbean cruise, or (c) traveling to one of the featured islands for 4 nights or less. Anything more than 4 nights and you're probably going to want to find a guide about that specific island or that specific area of the Caribbean, as they have packed a lot of info into an already hefty book that could never cover All Things Caribbean (at least not in 1100-ish pages).

That said, this guide is worth every penny. I especially like that it is in full color! Having enjoyed Moon and Frommer's guidebooks previously, the main complaint I had about those is that most pictures (the few there were) were black and white. So Fodor's Caribbean 2012 was a breath of fresh air :)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Whirlwind San Francisco: Day 2, Part 2 & Our Final Morning

Well, I'm finally finishing up my San Fran posts! I wish I hadn't had to break this into three parts, but our Day 1 post and our Day 2, Part 1 post were quite long enough :) What can I say? This may have been a whirlwind trip, but we sure shoved in a lot of sightseeing. And food. And drinking.

Anyway, after our big tour of San Fran on Friday we made a quick stop at the hotel to freshen up before going out to dinner with Steve's brother and his girlfriend. As we made our way to their apartment, we - and all traffic - were stopped by a random "bicycle parade"!

I'm still not sure what this "parade" was all about, but I do know that there were numerous naked people riding in it.

Yes, naked people. Completely naked. Many of them. Unfortunately, I didn't capture any of said naked people on camera, but this is San Francisco - would you really be surprised at people riding around on their bicycles...naked? ;)

Now, as luck misfortune would have it the place where we had dinner that night has since closed :-/ It was called Maya Restaurant and was located on 2nd Street (near the corner of Harrison). It was a sort of modern Mexican restaurants with a $2 taco happy hour, and for the price the food was delicious! I'm just sad that it's no longer open for others to experience.

After dinner we all hung out a little longer, but not surprisingly we were exhausted from our two days of running around the city. It was a little after 11 PM when we finally decided to make our way back to the hotel, where we fell right into bed and even slept a bit late the next morning thanks to a mid-afternoon flight schedule to Vegas. We were also able to meet Steve's brother and his girlfriend for a sort of "brunch" at the Olympic Flame Cafe on Geary Street.

First things first - do not order a Cappuccino here. They have one of those machines that spits out fake Cappuccinos as well as hot chocolate, so you might as well just order plain old coffee for less money. Unfortunately, we also encountered not one but two rude waitresses, and to make things even more difficult they only accept cash.

All that said, the omelets at this restaurant were, in a word, amazing. So amazing that I could almost overlook my crappy Cappuccino and our rude waitress ;) And if you can remember that they only take cash, to not order a Cappuccino, and to take the waitresses with a grain of salt...then I can definitely suggest the Olympic Flame Cafe for a great breakfast.

And then it was time for us to be on our way. We headed back to the hotel to check out, and at this point I will give a word of warning - always double check your bill when checking out of a hotel! I will expand more on this when I review the hotel we stayed in (separately, as I always do), but needless to say they were charging us a full rate rather than our AAA rate and we had to make them change it. Now, they were nice about doing so - but in this particular case the AAA rate was nearly $100 less PER NIGHT than their regular rate, so its' a really really good thing that I noticed the discrepancy. Not the way I would have liked to end our stay at this hotel, which was otherwise a nice place, but I certainly didn't let this ruin any part of our wonderful two and a half days in an amazing city :)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Fall for Greenville 2011: Some Thoughts

Fall for Greenville ended yesterday, and because I have a few timely thoughts on the festival I wanted to get my you-know-what together and write this post ASAP ;) You see, when we moved here in 2009 we missed FfG by two weeks...which led to my being extremely excited for it last year. Of course I was looking forward to it this year as well, but it wasn't until I heard that the Dirty Dozen Brass Band would be playing Saturday night that I allowed myself to get totally psyched up about it.
Dirty Dozen Brass Band - Wells Fargo Stage on Washington - Fall for Greenville 10/15/2011
Now don't get me wrong - last year it was definitely crowded when we attended FfG on Saturday evening. But this year it was so much worse. I mean, I could barely stand it. When I returned for a brief period yesterday to use up the last of my tickets, it wasn't even half as bad as it had been Saturday night - and yet it was still crowded. Which brings me to my first point - there really needs to be better tent placement and crowd control at this festival. Huge intersections with tents at opposing corners were entirely clogged with people waiting in line...why why WHY would you put a ticket tent and a beer tent across from each other like that? Those are the booths with the longest lines for the most amount of time.

Another thing I don't understand is why the tents don't have designated, roped off queue areas. This alone would keep large crowds of people waiting in line, for, say, food from the Sabroso tent (this tent was the most crowded food tent I saw all weekend. Constantly.) from blocking practically the entire road.

Last but not least in regards to my less positive notes - the beer. You see, last year a craft beer "cost" 6 tickets. This year they were 7 tickets. You buy FfG tickets in sheets of 8 for $5 a sheet, which means that each ticket is worth approximately 62 cents. That means that last year a beer was about $3.75, and this year that same beer would set you back about $4.37. That's a pretty big hike for a single year, folks. And on top of that, they completely changed the beer tasting option so that it was nothing short of a total rip off. Last year it cost 6 tickets for the tasting, and with those 6 tickets you could sample seven beers. Each sample was about 3-4 oz, so you were definitely getting your money's worth. This year, you had to pay 3 tickets for a sample cup, and then each 2 oz sample (and believe me, they only meted out 2 oz per sample) cost an additional two tickets. I realized after two samples that this was, as I already mentioned, a rip off. Too bad I had already wasted those tickets on the little sample mug.
Tired of the FfG beer prices...time for drinks at Rey's!
Now, I don't want it to sound as if I didn't have a good time - because even with the crowds and the sky-high beer prices, I did. There was some great music - including that from the band I went to see Saturday night - and some yummy food. I was able to sample the pulled pork sliders and lobster mac-and-cheese from Soby's, the doughnut burger with homemade chips from Grille 33, and the salted chocolate caramel cupcake from Chocolate Moose. On top of that, some friends and I agreed that the food portions were notably bigger this year - and that's always a plus :)

Also, I'm not sure if the city officials stepped in to make a difference or what, but parking was much more affordable this year. In 2007 we were forced to pay $20 to park two blocks off North Main. Last year we had my sister bring us and pick us up so that we wouldn't have to pay for parking or worry about driving. This year, the Richardson garage was free as always (though of course it filled up early, though I was able to park there yesterday afternoon) and all other parking was just $5. No matter how it happened that parking was capped at $5, I'm happy that it was!

All that said, yesterday was obviously far less crowded as a whole and I think next year Steve and I will make it a point to do our FfG day on Sunday :)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Top 10 US Food & Wine Destinations

TripAdvisor recently announced their Traveler's Pick Food & Wine Destinations, and of course I had to check out the list. The one that really jumped out at me was the list of the best US cities for food and wine.

Of course, it probably helps that I've visited 8 of the 10 cities they listed. Some of the places - NYC and New Orleans, for instance - felt like give-ins. Others didn't surprise me that much, either - namely Chicago and Las Vegas. But I was very, very pleasantly surprised that Charleston and Asheville made the list as well! Especially Asheville, as it's really so close and actually fairly similar to my beautiful home city of Greenville, SC ;)

Check out the list and let me know what you think. Do you feel that any of these cities didn't deserve to be on the list? If so, can you think of a city that should have been on it?

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Art Bar: Now Serving Liquor!

Unfortunately, due to weather changes and allergies I missed the Art Bar's liquor launch party last week. I was disappointed because it looked like it would be such a good time...but I used missing it as an excuse to drag Steve out to Art Bar for some food and drinks over the weekend, instead :)

We shared a Croque Monsieur and the Artichoke & Goat Cheese French Bread, which were of course amazing. But what I really wanted to talk about is their drink menu!

First of all, putting together a mixed drink menu that is beyond the norm isn't the easiest thing ever. For instance, I love Smoke on the Water's "martini list" and Blue Ridge Brewing Company's selection of shooters. But most places just have the standards and don't try to veer from that.

Thankfully, Art Bar went that extra mile. You can of course order drinks not on the menu - an Old Fashioned, for example (with or without the muddled fruit), or a Gin & Tonic made with homemade quinine! But with their specialty cocktails - which they have dubbed "Artisan Cocktails" - you have some even more interesting choices. Art Bar plans on really going with the flow. The list will evolve to reflect the seasons of the year and the fresh ingredients that these seasons bring. For summer lovers there are options like the Georgia Peach (rum and peach puree, among other ingredients) and the very yummy Strawberry Fields (rum, fresh strawberries, etc.) At the moment they are also featuring fall-inspired drinks such as L'Automne 75, made with crabapple gin.

Add to all that other classic favorites such as Sazeracs and Sidecars, and I hope you can see why we were so impressed with the variety of Art Bar's new mixed drink menu. I highly suggest stopping by, chatting up the awesome bartender, and trying out some of these libations.

I know for sure that we'll be back!

Art Bar On Main on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Asheville NC, Part 2: The Beer

Please note that this entry is copied nearly verbatim from my Greenville SC blog. Why? Well, Asheville is a somewhat popular tourist destination (especially in this area) and I wanted everyone to know that there is more to do there than see the Biltmore! But I'm a bit too lazy to write an entirely new blog entry when this one fits just fine ;)

Earlier this year I attended the Winter Warmer Beer Festival in Asheville. According to the site, this was the festival's fourth year. I had heard some rumors about how in the past it was held in some questionable places, things got too crowded, etc. As this is the first year we had the pleasure of attending, I certainly can't compare it to past experiences, but I can say that we did have a total blast. We also stayed overnight, booking our room at the Four Points by Sheraton for about $105 for the night (including taxes). We got that rate as AAA members but supposedly they were offering the same rate to Winter Warmer customers. However, when I called to book our room and mentioned the Winter Warmer festival the woman had no idea what I was talking about and until I mentioned that we were in AAA, claimed the best rate I could get was about $125 for the night. Not really sure what the miscommunication or issue was, but thank God for AAA!
A NC brewery named after Steve's distant relative!

Steve and I coughed up the extra $12 per ticket for the VIP treatment--we paid $50 per person and the "regular" tickets were $38. Having splurged for VIP tickets to Top of the Hops in Greenville last year (worth it), as well as for VIP tickets to Sippin' Safari at the Greenville Zoo back in September (not worth it), we figured it couldn't hurt to take our chances...and we were very pleased! We attended Winter Warmer with some friends who purchased just the regular admission tickets, and they had to wait about 30 minutes just to get in whereas we had no line at all. That, and we got t-shirts and a nifty little canvas bag. The t-shirts cost $10 on their own and you couldn't buy the bag, so between these goodies and the nonexistent line our VIP tickets were more than worth it.

The thing is, because this festival was a lot smaller than the country-wide Top of the Hops - and all of the breweries were from North Carolina and surrounding states - I was forced to try some beers that I normally wouldn't bother with. Stouts and the like. I was actually - mostly - pleasantly surprised with my many samples. There was also live music, which was surprisingly really good. I honestly wasn't sure how I'd feel about a band named Brushfire Stankgrass ;)

Playing trivia
A couple of local radio stations were in attendance as well, and one of them held little trivia contests throughout the afternoon...I had to drag Steve away after he had participated in these three or four times.

Of course, it did get a bit crowded but thankfully there were never really long lines for the beer samples - people were pretty good about spreading out and nearly every brewery had one or two crowd favorites, from what I could tell. The only time when the people became a bit too much for me was when the single bathroom (which had only four stalls!) had a line so long that I had to wait about 30 minutes to pee. No lie. Really not sure why there was only one women's bathroom open in the entire civic center, but we can only hope that next year they'll realize that you can't stuff that many woman into a big room full of free beer and not have more than one restroom option (or at least, not have only a single restroom with a mere four stalls available).

Another great thing about Winter Warmer is that all of the tickets included food, which was supplied by a local restaurant called Fiore's Ristorante Toscana. Unfortunately...the quality and quantity of said food was questionable at best. Not the worst food I've ever eaten, but it was pretty obvious that the stuff had been sitting in chafing dishes all day, and the portions were pretty darn meager. Granted, it was nice to have some food to fill our bellies a bit while we were downing all that free beer, but I guess what it comes down to is that Italian probably wasn't the best option they could have offered, and it would have been nice to receive more than a couple tiny appetizers and a little mound of pasta with sauce. Should you travel to Asheville of your own accord, at this point I'd have to say don't bother trying this particular restaurant.

Yummy food at LAB!
We stayed at the festival until it ended, then hit up the hotel for a quick freshen-up before a night out on the town in Asheville. I was excited to see a little more of the city, as so many people have ranted and raved about how fun it is - but to be completely honest I far prefer my home city of Greenville ;). Sure, Asheville has that beautiful setting right at the base of the mountains, but the looks of downtown leave a lot to be desired and although a bit bigger than Greenville, nothing stuck out as being superior by any means. We stuck somewhat close to the hotel, stopping at a pretty sad little lounge with a one-word name and populated by some rude tourists from Atlanta first, then heading to LAB on Lexington for some more craft brews and good food. Steve and I just shared some appetizers - the venison nachos and sweet potato gnocchi - but I was impressed. Although I think the nachos could have used a bit more flavor, they were still yummy and the gnocchi were to die for. Seriously. Everyone else who ordered food agreed that this place has some tasty dishes! It probably also helped that their "Whitey" ale and their Hefeweizen were both delish.

Once we were done eating, we headed around the corner to a sort of...basement bar. This place was seriously hidden, but they had pool tables and a jukebox. I'm not sure if it was officially a part of The Southern Kitchen (it was attached, but could have been a separate entity) but regardless, it was a great place to wind down after a long day of drinking and running around.

All in all, although I wouldn't necessarily make this festival a yearly occurrence (more because staying the night in Asheville makes for a not-so-cheap outing), I'm glad we went and I'm glad I can now say that I've actually been to Asheville (having only been up there to tour the Biltmore before). If only because now I can say that it's for sure not as awesome as Greenville ;)