Trip Bits: After it’s all over

Read the whole Trip Bits series.

Departing my last three international excursions, I’ve carried home a particular present: illness. I seem to have a knack for it.

Usually it comes to me on the last day, right before I’m about to get on a long, overnight, international flight from which there is no escape for 6+ hours. And at high altitudes in a cramped space with 300 other people is just where you want to be with an achy body and a stuffy head.

But it’s (sort of) my own fault. I pick vacations where I’m going to run hard and hardly sleep. No lollygagging on a tropical beach — there’s too much to see! to buy! to eat! Continue reading

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Trip Bits: Around and about

Read the whole Trip Bits series.

I’m getting to the age where I’m okay with investing in quality items that may cost more but are going to last. Travel bags are no different. Before London, I bought a cross-body bag at Target that was big enough to haul the camera, my notebook and other necessities while out in the city all day. But it fell apart on like the third day. And that was fine, since it was $20. Well, not fine. But not unexpected, I guess.

Then I started reading Aspiring Kennedy — which documents Lauren’s life and times in London, her travels across Europe and more. When she endorsed Ellington bags, I was intrigued. Plus, she offered a giveaway!

Like Lauren, I bought both the Mia crossbody purse and folding tote. And got the “extra” wallet in green. When they all arrived, I opened the box and out wafted the most delicious aroma. Leather. Real, creamy leather. The olive color is subdued but rich, with silky yet durable fabric. I used both bags every day of our trip to Israel. Every day.

Mia folding tote in Olive

Mia folding tote in Olive

Mia crossbody tote

Mia crossbody purse in Olive

The crossbody was the perfect size to sling over myself and still be able to wend my way through tight crowds. (Though it wasn’t quite big enough to fit my Canon Rebel DSLR camera). The folding tote was my backup bag to hold the camera, the day’s purchases, snacks, etc. Since we were on a bus, it worked — I could bring the larger bag but leave it behind for each excursion. If I was city traveling, I would just upgrade to the folding tote for all-day outings, when you need a larger, catch-all bag.

I’m a big fan.

tote

With my Mia crossbody purse, on the Sea of Galilee. I’m actually on the shore, not standing in the water, promise. I leave that to Jesus.

On a day of sightseeing, my camera and I are attached at the hip. The problem is that I’m still learning how to use it. I’m not so savvy with a camera, even though I’m learning, with practice, to improve my picture taking. iPhones and other smartphones — even iPads! — take great pictures now, but I still feel so professional and artsy with my big, fancy camera. Though I’m not sure its picture quality is any better than some of the good point-and-shoots out today.

I went to a photography class recently, and they swore by lens hoods. I already have a UV filter on my lens, but off I went to dutifully find a lens hood cover. I’d been warned that they were expensive, but I found a plethora on Amazon for under $10. Most of those are even rubberized and collapsible. So, I bought the $6.99 version hoping it would be easy to pack and carry.

hood

I can’t tell much difference. (But keep in mind that I have no idea what I’m doing.) The first day all was going well, until I noticed the hood cover at full extension was corrupting all my pictures. I slid it back, but I still have soft, dark spots lingering in the corners of some of my photos. (Even when I removed the hood cover completely. Hmph.)

israel

Photography people: weigh in here. Are these hood covers really the end-all-be-all in picture taking? Inquiring minds need to know, for next time.

Leave your comments below.

Coming tomorrow: Trip Bits for when it’s all over. Read the whole Trip Bits series.

Trip Bits: Before you go

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I am a self-diagnosed “super planner.” I love making lists and scheduling things. If you want to have dinner on April 5, 2015, I will dutifully mark it in my paper pocket calendar and will see you then. Because I must. touch. paper. I can’t hang with that digital, smartphoney stuff.

When I’m about to travel, I savor researching the local sightseeing or dining options and putting all the details together.

Yes, my friends find my zest for itineraries kind of ridicul … charming. Yes, I wanted to be a travel agent in high school. And, no, that dream is not yet dead. (Remember the time I found my people?)

So I was intrigued to read this article:

Read: What a Great Trip! And I’m Not Even There Yet

I get the idea. That sometimes the fun is in the planning, before the headaches of delayed, long and cramped travel, annoying vacation partners or destination disappointments.

I’ve experienced all of those on one trip or another, but I’ve been decently lucky. My travels have been smooth, fun and memorable, even with minor hiccups and setbacks. I can roll with the punches. (But I’ve not yet been bitten by a shark.) Continue reading

Deep in the heart of Texas.

You know when you talk about doing something for so long, and when it finally happens it feels surreal? That was our trip to San Antonio a couple of weekends ago. We’ve been saying for years that we wanted to go see family there. Finally, the timing and our motivation was in sync.

I’d never actually been to the “great state of Texas” before. (That’s how they say it. Not just “Texas,” but “the great state of Texas.”) I mean, I’d technically been to Dallas, well, Irving, a couple of times for work, but I saw the airport, the office, the hotel and the airport again. Maybe once I saw the tiny skyline of Dallas on the horizon. So I don’t think that counts.

We spent four jam-packed days, with plenty of touring and eating, but also great times with family. I wouldn’t call San Antonio a pretty city, except for downtown and the Riverwalk, but I am in love with the weather. It was mid-to-high 60s in the middle of a February winter. The skies were clear and the air was nearly humidity free. That’s weather this girl from the South basks in whenever I can get near it.

I think our trip also felt surreal because it’s an example of how you can travel to parts of the U.S. that feel familiar, but also like a totally different culture. I love that about our country. And even though Texas is considered southern in some circles, it is a very different thing. My first inkling that I wasn’t in Kansas, or North Carolina, anymore was how normal it is for women to wear cowboy hats while running errands. Those Texans live up to their hype as God-fearing, gun-toting, big-living, barbecue-eating yet fun-loving and friendly folk.

So, what do you do on a weekend in San Antonio? Here are a few ideas. Continue reading

A culinary tour of NYC, Part III.

Believe it or not, I saved the best for last. Don’t miss Part I and Part II.

Shake Shack — Madison Square Park/Flatiron (multiple locations)

There used to be only one Shake Shack location. I think it was also only open for certain months, and it was so popular that you could easily wait an hour or more in line for its legendary burgers, fries and milkshakes. I attempted that line once or twice, but I just never made it through. Now, there’s a Shake Shake on every corner in NYC. I’ve even heard they’re expanding to locations in London.

At the close of another full day of eating, we ended up at the original Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. The line was short, and there were tables aplenty. Perfect. Except that it was slightly north of freezing — a bit chilly for eating outside. I was quite happy, though, to tuck into a classic cheeseburger with ShackSauce and crinkle-cut french fries doused in this light, creamy cheese sauce. None of that neon-orange, gloopy, chain/stadium-style stuff here. Shake Shack’s selling point is quality — and you can taste it in the freshly ground meat and homemade sauces. My only regret is that it was too cold outside and I didn’t fell well enough to order a milkshake. So, guess I’ll have to go back. Poor me.

After so many years of waiting, I’m glad to report that Shake Shack lived up to the hype. It was dee-licious.

shakeshack

burger

Continue reading

A culinary tour of NYC, Part II.

My culinary tour of NYC continues. Don’t miss Part I.

Sunday Brunch — Harlem

You’d think that since I’m southern, I would know soul food. And I thought I did, until I went to Sylvia’s in Harlem. It was years ago, but it’s still the best fried chicken and red velvet cake I’ve eaten anywhere, including in any southern state. Sorry to betray my roots with truth. So I was excited to get my Sylvia’s fix again this trip. We attempted Sunday brunch … but here’s the rub. Sylvia’s is so good that it’s in demand. (Read: constantly packed and touristy). On this rainy Sunday morning, we could barely squeeze in the front door. And since we were on a bit of a schedule, that wouldn’t do.

Instead, we walked across the street to Corner Social, which was unknown to us but had a great look and an even better-looking menu. I spotted exactly what I wanted before we even sat down — an item that had long evaded me, even earning a spot on my official culinary bucket list: chicken and waffles. Well, in this case, it was chicken and pancakes. (Close enough.) I find crispy, savory fried chicken over fluffy pancakes drowned in maple syrup a genius combo. It’s sweet and salty. Soft and crispy. The perfect marriage of opposite, yet complementary, flavors and textures.

chicken-pancakes

Continue reading

A culinary tour of NYC, Part I.

Last October, I was able to sneak away for a weekend in New York City. It was my first trip there in two and a half years, and I went with grand plans for great adventures. I returned excited to tell you all about it. Then a little storm system called Sandy hit. It was heartbreaking, and I just had trouble reconciling the city I know with the devastation I saw on the news. Suddenly, talking about all the fun I had just seemed wrong.

So, rather than chronicling every spare second as I am wont to do, I instead offer a much condensed version of my trip.

During my tenure as a New Yorker, I reveled in the food scene. My friends and I tried out all the top restaurants as soon as we could get a reservation — brunch at Sarabeth’s or Balthazar, dinner at Butter, Pastis, Spice Market, Eleven Madison Park, Aquavit, the Rainbow Room, Gramercy Tavern. (The “hot spots” circa 2005.) Exciting trends in food are usually born in or come to the U.S. through New York first. Within 20 minutes, I could sample a Magnolia cupcake, a Jacques Torres hot chocolate or a Serendipity3 ice cream sundae.

My worst realization, coming a couple of months into building my new life down south, was that the food scene moved on quite easily without me. As I left, Pinkberry was becoming all the rage, as was Momofuku. I tried but never had time to wait in the mile-long line for Shake Shack, and Eataly opened several years later. As time approached for this trip, I had built up quite a list of things and places to eat … my own culinary tour of the city, you could say.

Takahachi — East Village

First stop was this little sushi joint (really, it’s tiny) in the East Village. Takahachi was the first place I ever ate sushi, back in 2000. We just stumbled on it one Sunday afternoon after wandering most of lower Manhattan. That meal was spectacular, and I was hooked (har har.) I ate there again several times, and it never disappointed. Until now. Continue reading

Start your engines.

I’ve had a few weeks off of work and I’ve been trying to whittle through my adventures list. As I realized earlier this summer, I almost never take the time to play tourist in my own hometown. So I seized this opportunity to make good on a daughterly birthday or Father’s Day IOU: taking my dad to see the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Dad is an avid NASCAR fan. Sure, he grew up and has lived near at least three of the major raceways. But he also understands and is thrilled by all the physics of racing. Where I see a bunch of adrenaline-fueled, cocky young bucks driving cars around in a circle, Dad sees stuff like “drafting” and driving skills and properly maintained car parts.

I started to understand the NASCAR fascination a bit more when I went to my first race at the Lowe’s Motor Speedway a couple of years ago. Sure, there were the requisite shirtless, beer-swilling, mullet-sporting fans who’d camped there for three days. But sitting in the stands, only feet from the track — where several cars wrecked right in front of us — I could feel the energy and the danger. It’s so loud you hear nothing but the roar of engines and the zing! of cars speeding by. You smell burning rubber and feel the reverberations of the cars on the track. It’s sort of thrilling, even when we had no idea who was who or what was going on. Dad was watching on TV at home so he narrated the race for us by text message.

The raceway at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

At the race in 2010. I was excited; Ann not so much.

The NASCAR Hall of Fame and museum opened a couple of years ago in uptown Charlotte, and it’s housed in a sleek, architecturally interesting building that I used to drive by every day. There’s been plenty of news and controversy about it, and many friends have already been, so my interest was piqued. On a sunny day in early September, we set off. Continue reading

Exploring in my own backyard.

When I was in London in June, I talked with my cousin Eric about the things I wanted to do while I was there. He had all kinds of ideas for me, steering me away from places I thought I should see but suggesting others that were little known.  He had gleaned much of this knowledge about London, he explained, just by wandering and exploring. It’s something he’d done in every city in which he’d lived — Boston, Hong Kong, New York, now London — seeking out, planning and then actually visiting historical sites, neighborhoods and restaurants around town. (That’s also why he recommended the book he told me about.) Just before I visited, Eric and his wife Jenmon took a private tour of Parliament through their M.P., and a few weeks later were going to see the Cutty Sark in Greenwich. He very purposefully doesn’t take the places he lives for granted, which I think is rare, and admirable.

I focused, of course, on how I spend a whole lot of nights and weekends: just flopped down on the couch. As the years have passed by, I haven’t taken proper advantage of the historical and cultural gems right in my own backyard. I mean, I lived in NYC for nearly 8 years and never saw the Bronx Zoo, the Hamptons OR Coney Island.

Coney Island!

It’s a travesty, I realize.

So, inspired by Eric and in the spirit of my other “adventure” lists, I sat down to create a local list for myself — one I will call “Playing Tourist at Home.” It’s a work in progress, but it encapsulates all the things I want to see and do right here in the Charlotte metro, and likely wouldn’t without motivation. It seems like the right time to make the effort, now that school’s behind me and I’m recapturing my hobbies and social life. So hold me accountable — I will respond to that.

As luck would have it, an occasion to accomplish one item on this list recently completely fell in my lap.

A couple of weekends ago, I was invited to visit a local winery, Childress Vineyards, which is about an hour north of Charlotte in Lexington, N.C. For awhile now, North Carolina has been a burgeoning wine state, and vineyards and wineries are popping up all over the place. Even growing grapes in your backyard and making your own wine is becoming quite the thing.

The day we went to Childress turned out to be the hottest day of the year (and the hottest in my recent memory): a high of 105° F. But, I told myself, I’m always up for an adventure. And I was thrilled to see that the whole place is air conditioned. (Okay…I checked on that before we left.)

Though it was sweltering, it was actually a beautiful day — crystal clear and sunny, which just highlighted the vineyard’s extraordinary beauty. It’s like a Tuscan estate tucked  into the countryside of North Carolina. Childress Vineyards is owned by NASCAR racing owner Richard Childress; he lives nearby and even keeps vines in his yard that are used to produce the most exclusive of the Childress wines.

Now, I cannot stress enough how “out in the middle of nowhere” the vineyard appears — at least from the one minute drive between highway exit and winery driveway. But, that day it was a destination — probably more so because of the heat. It was packed. As we entered through enormous, ornately carved wooden doors, we stepped into a stone entryway complete with fountain. A four-piece band was playing music just ahead of us, and tons of people were milling about: tasting frozen wine concoctions at the “bar,” eating lunch, browsing the gift store. Since we were a fairly large group of 14, we put our name in for lunch (with at least an hour’s wait) and went ahead to the wine tasting.

We divided into two groups based on our wine preferences — a “Cellar Select” tasting for those who like sweeter wines, and a “Barrel Select” tasting for those who like dryer, more premium wines. I probably tend towards sweeter wines, but I’ll really drink anything and wanted to make sure I experienced the best Childress had to offer. So, while the majority chose the Cellar Select Series, I joined three more experimental wine drinkers for the Barrel Select. The tastings are all conducted at a long bar adjacent to the gift store, so we were all able to stand together anyway. The wines were all good — though nothing was extraordinary enough that I couldn’t leave the winery without purchasing. Perhaps Trader Joe’s has ruined me to buying any bottle over $7.00.

After the wine tasting, we moved our tipsy selves to the dining area for lunch. The dining room looks out over the acres of grapevines — a beautiful view. On a better day, you can even sit outside on the lawn to enjoy your meal. Since I had driven and we had to be back in town at a certain time, we didn’t linger over a bottle of wine at lunch. We just glared jealously at all the other patrons nearby who were doing so.

After killing about an hour wandering through the gift shop and ducking outside for a few minutes at a time until we couldn’t take the heat anymore, we gathered for the vineyard tour. I’m not sure if they cut the tour short because of the weather, but it only took about 20 minutes. Blissfully, we were only outside for about five of those minutes before we headed into the chilled warehouse to see the wine manufacturing process. As we walked down the stone steps and across the lawn on our way there, though, we passed a group of staff members assembling white, folding event chairs. There was to be a wedding there at 6:30 p.m. Right there in the blistering sun at 105 degrees. Bless their poor souls.

Our tour guide explained that North Carolina used to be the top producing wine state, until Prohibition in the 1920s. After it was repealed in the 1930s, California popped up as the go-to wine producer, but North Carolina is trying to catch up. We apparently have good weather for all types of grapes, though the humidity in the summer can wreak havoc. Muscadine wine, which I didn’t taste but Childress sells, is a homegrown North Carolina product, primarily grown and produced in the Eastern/coastal part of the state. I think Childress buys grapes from that area to make their wine, but grows everything else on that property.

Richard Childress is committed to only making, and even bottling, local wine — home vintners can bring their own wine there for bottling, but only if the grapes were grown in North Carolina. That’s a nice touch, the local angle.

After the tour, we loaded cars and headed home. It had been a lovely day — an easy drive, a fun excursion and a nice distraction from the heat of the day. There are a whole host of other wineries nearby — clustered near the Winston-Salem/Greensboro area, around Hendersonville and Asheville in the mountains, about two hours north near the Virginia border and even more out at the coast along the beaches. They literally dot the entire state — mountains to the sea. So, more N.C. vineyards are on my list — tourist excursions for another day.