Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Wedding Wednesday: Selecting my Bride Tribe

One of the most significant choices you make going into a wedding will be who will be standing with you on your big day. These people are the friends who are close to you, and from my perspective, have helped you and your soon-to-be by building up your relationship. They are honest with you and are by your side for everything else in some way. The bridal party was a creation of the Romans. In Ancient Roman law, at least 10 witnesses had to be present for a martial ceremony. The bridal party had to dress exactly like the bride and groom in order to confuse vengeful spirits who may try to harm the newlyweds.  You can read more about that here.

Since I had already decided on a more intimate option for our ceremony (family only), I was at a crossroads: Do I choose bridesmaids or not? Well, I did. Kinda. Let me explain. Since my bridesmaids will not be donning a more 'traditional' role, they will still be a part of my big day. But, I am not calling them bridesmaids: they are my BRIDE TRIBE. These ladies have been closest to me throughout everything and I honestly could not imagine my wedding day without them. So, they will still help me get ready, and take photos, just like typical bridesmaids, just without the ceremony portion of the day. With my choice of colors for our wedding, I have told them to pick a dress that matches within that range. I want them to wear a dress that suits their body they are comfortable in.

So, to 'propose' to each woman, I created two customized gift boxes catered to each one of their personalities. While they were similar in some items, others I wanted to be a bit different. Each box was $14 from Michael's Craft store. I filled it with pink shred $1.49/each per box from Target. Each notepad was $14 from Zazzle. The each candle was $12 from JayCorner. The Bridesmaid Mug was $10 from Marshalls - similar here. The Bridesmaid stemless wine glass was $10 at Marshalls - similar here. And the sleep masks were $5 on Amazon each. And, the Bridesmaid tags were $3 from Marshalls (a part of a full set) - but these can be made easily or purchased on Etsy!

I hope you have enjoyed this installment of Wedding Wednesday. If you are bridemaid, what was your favorite gift? Or, if you are a bride, what did you give your bridesmaids? I would love to hear about it!

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Wedding Wednesday: Wedding Expos

I cannot tell you as a bride, how excited I was to attend my first Wedding Expo. It was one of the first things I had planned on doing with my MOH where I felt I was a true BRIDE. I had heard about these shows before so I immediately bought tickets online, excited about attending my first show back in June of 2017. There is a lot of anticipation leading up to one of these shows. They advertise it as a great resource for the newly engaged bride-to-be, from having you connect with caterers, bakers, wedding dress shops, reception venues, rental shops and the like. They do not hold back in telling you about all the Free stuff you are going to get and the all the prizes and raffles that go on throughout the entire event.

But, as a bride-to-be attending my first show, I admit I was disappointed. First, the only runway show they had that day was for the bridal gowns for Alfred Angelo, you know the one that filed for Bankruptcy in July 2017. The dresses were limited and the lack of diversity in designers were disappointing. Side note, all the women who wore the dresses were pageant winners for the state, so not many diverse body types either. Once the show was over, there was an apparent raffle, for a total of 8 items, and the raffled items were for easily budgeted items, like toasting flutes, garters, and thank-you notes.

With about 20 minutes to go visit the vendors who did show up, most were of venues about an hour's drive away or more from the city center. The cake tastings were limiting and most had the same vanilla cake with vanilla icing. As many vendors were bombarded with an abundance of multiple potential customers trying to get questions answered, there was not enough vendors to get a really good idea of what variety is out there. Overall, I felt the experience was lackluster. For the $30 I spent to see the gowns, the vendors and get information, I walked away empty handed. I never utilized any of the vendors who were there and most vendors ignored those brides-to-be who seem to not be "within their budget".

It was the first and last show I attended. While there were plenty of Wedding Expos that circled the city a couple of times, I realized finding a good vendor through the show was not for me. I wanted someone with passion, and I felt the commercialized wedding industry vibe the entire time I was at the show. It felt impersonal and cold. Personally, I felt rushed through to sign with a vendor I had no idea if they were right for me or not. The worst part of it all was my name and number was sold to a third-party vendor that had been calling me daily about a resort getaway (which I had to ultimately block because they refused to remove me from their calling list). While I think these shows have the potential to show the bride-to-be the many wonderful aspects of her big day, I found my show displayed the very reason brides become "bridezillas".

Monday, November 27, 2017

How We Plan Our Trips & Our NYE Trip!

Matt and I have been planning our New Year's Trip for a few weeks now. We are going to Colorado & Utah for a week away. I believe this will be our last trip before our honeymoon so we are really excited to have some time away before the big push to get everything done for that next phase.

Planning our trips is always done with at least 3 months prior to us leaving. We both love not only the aspect of traveling itself, but also the planning phase, where we research the areas, the weather and things to do in the area we want to visit. Since we are AAA members, this is the first stop of our trip, to get maps, triptix and any information of the area we are going to be traveling to. This information lets us know 1- if we are driving, what areas to avoid (for construction/rerouting) and 2- have a map on hand just incase we end up doing something not on our general itinerary. I also like to visit to see what the associates there can help us with: if they have been before, can they recommend a hotel or activity they enjoyed. Getting first-hand experience from someone who has been has always helped guide us to where we want to go and what we would like to do.

After our maps and basic information gathering of the area/city, it is time to hunker down and search the web. I find fellow travel bloggers to be useful in obtaining areas off the beaten path or any unique gems they have found that may have interest to me. Matt, on the other hand, hits the books/magazines and articles on the areas. I have a soft spot for "Top 30 Best..." lists and Matt loves his Nat Geo books, especially when it comes to hikes. These book, while may be outdated after a few years, have tons of tips and tricks he finds useful when planning certain aspects of the trip. With my attention to spots off the beaten path to Matt's love of setting a flexible schedule, we make a great team to plan a great itinerary that fits the way we love to travel.

For our trip to Colorado and Utah, we have pre-booked my flight out. Since this is a work trip for him, and a purely vacation trip for me, I decided to fly out separately, a day later, so I could finish work and meet him out there. And, cost wise, that worked out well, as the cost of the flight was drastically different in flying out a day later. Cost of flights are all about timing and if you can utilize the frequent flyer programs, they can benefit you in the long run. However, being low-key and having the flexibility, can allow you to have a cheaper flight, if you are not restricted by time of departure, luggage or space on the plane. All things to keep in mind when choosing a flight.

As far as rental cars are concerned, we personally have been using one company, which allows us to build a "point system" based on usage. The more cars we rent, the more points we get. And, in turn, that allows us discounts on those car in the future. Again, like the frequent flyer programs, it is all dependent on usage. The more you use, the more you save. Depending on the city and its mass transit will determine if we use a rental car or not. For cities like Chicago and Boston, we did not rent a car. But, for cities like Los Angeles, Miami, and Pittsburgh we did opt for a rental. In Atlanta and New Orleans we were able to use a car service, like Uber/Lyft to get us from the airport to our hotel, but nothing more passed those trips. We found cities like Chicago, that charge for parking your car to be an expense we did not want to incur during our time there, so we skipped a car. Normally a hotel will mention that in their breakdown, so do your research.

So, onto hotels. Certain cities we have used AirBnB, but not many. Most of the time we have been lucky where we have found inexpensive hotel rooms. International travel, like our trip to Paris where hotels are expensive for one night, opted for a small AirBnb for cost savings. This choice is up to you and your comfort level. We have found smaller hotels, like Sun Life Beach Hotel (near Gasparilla Island, FL) in many states which are perfect places to stay, even just for an evening. We have opted for a hotel in both Moab, UT and Denver, CO. For us, in areas like this, we basically use them to drop off stuff, shower, sleep and launch. So, a higher quality hotel/resort does not need to be a high ticketed item (we choose Hilton Garden Inn or a DoubleTree by Hilton for Denver and Moab).

As far as things to do in Denver and Moab, an obvious one for us are the National Parks. Any time we have the opportunity to see one, we jump at the chance. Also, since we participate in the REI's #OptOutside and the Park Systems' #FirstDayHikes each year, we figured this upcoming year would be no different. Canyonlands, Capitol Reef National Park, Arches National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park on our lists. Since these are fairly close to where we will be staying, and they can easily be done in the time we have, we figured the more the merrier. A majority of our time out to the midwest will be for hiking/walking around these areas exploring. If there are any suggestions you have for us, feel free to send us a message and let us know!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Wedding Wednesday: Wedding Dress Shopping

Welcome back my fellow brides-to-be! Today, we talk about one of the most important aspects of your big day: THE DRESS!

After attending one too many bridal shows, I was pretty fed up with the dresses. None of them felt like me and I was not about to just pick any dress to have a dress. And, for those of you who may not remember, this was right before Alfred Angelo stores closed (literally a week after me seeing their dresses at a bridal show!).

I had been on Pinterest quite a bit peeking around to see what style of dress I really liked. Since I knew I was getting married in the spring, I knew that narrowed down dress options a bit. But, it gave me a lot of options to still choose from. As I knew I was having an outdoor wedding on bricks, I wanted a dress that was not too heavy in weight, as there is a slight chance of having abnormally warm weather here in late April.

I had found a few wedding dress shops in the area and so it was time to head out to shop for one. I had set up appointments to go. Each saturday, I walked in, telling the ladies what I had envisioned and liked, as well as my price range, and allowed them the creativity to give me a lot of different options. I took their suggestions, even at dresses I would not have originally selected by just looking at them, but none of them were the one.  Store after store I went to visit with my MOH and without much luck I was about to give up. Until my last dress shop in the area.

The dress shop is a wedding dress consignment shop and had been highly rated by fellow brides who had not found much luck as I had. I was not so optimistic as I had not found anything I had like thus far and was afraid I would still be in search for a dress. I told the lady about my spring wedding, showed her photos of what i liked, and told her what I was looking for. She asked me to go around the shop and pick out any of the dresses that stood out to me. And, I did. I brought them back and i went to try them on. Some I liked, others I didn't. For the ones I didn't like, she asked me why and was very attentive to what I said. As I was taking off a dress, she went out and selected other dresses based on my feedback. Until, it was the end of the appointment and I was still not feeling any of the dresses. Then, one of the ladies brought out a dress that had recently come into the store. She walked over, grabbed it from the woman, looked at the size, and told me to try it out. And, that became my dress.

While being fitted for various dresses, the woman who does wedding dress alterations next door (and who they suggest visiting) was there that day and walked me through the process of when to schedule my alteration appointments as well as what she would be doing to make the dress fit me. It was a great experience to have that day.

My dress is 100% silk organza, a-line and a slight sweetheart neckline with detailing at the bottice. It was designer. It was not exactly what I had envisioned walking in, but my perception of dresses changed when I began trying them out. Styles I liked did not suit me as well as I had hoped. But, I was open to suggestions and I am glad I was. I had my aunt and my MOH with me that day and the moment they saw me in the dress, they lit up as I did. I asked to try it on with a veil and I knew. It was my dress. I paid for it in full that moment. It took me 6+ trips to finally get my dress but I am happy with my selection.

My tip for other brides-to-be is to have a few photos with you, like I did, and explain elements of the dresses that you are drawn to. Maybe its the fit of the dress or the detailing of the neckline. Maybe you like a fuller skirt or a simpler look. Bring as many examples as you can and be 100% honest with the stylist on what you like and do not like. It will not hurt their feelings if you do not like a particular dress they select. They are there to help you find what you want and it may take a few tries. That is okay.  You will be surprised at what you may find. And, if you do not 100% love the dress, shop around. It sometimes takes a few stops to find the perfect dress. Do not stress out over it as you will find one that fits you.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Indianapolis & Minneapolis!

When Matt had told me about a quick work getaway he had do for the weekend to Indianapolis & Minnesota, I jumped at the opportunity to go with him. As we have been diving into our wedding planning head first, we really had not stopped to enjoy our engagement. I told him this would be a great way to 'take a break' from the planning monster and just enjoy time without worrying about all the details. So, we packed our bags and flew out. He picked up his client and we were en route to our first stop: Indianapolis, Indiana.
I had been through Indianapolis many years ago, but never had the opportunity to stop and really see the city. Since we only had a day available to see it before our departure the next morning, we wanted to fit as much as we could in the day we had. And we did! Our first stop was to brunch at Rosie's Place in Zionsville, IN. This was the perfect spot to start our day. The food was fantastic and the atmosphere was very welcoming. Zionsville is such a sweet little town. We decided to walk around for a bit and ended up at My Sugar Pie. Our lovely host for the evening (our favorite Italian family) was making us a huge feast since we were in town so we picked up a couple of pies for dessert. BTW, we loved the strawberry rhubarb and mixed berry, and they were a huge hit that night.
Afterwards, we went back to drop off the pies for the evening and went straight to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This was a particular exciting weekend to be in Indy as they were hosting the Red Bull Air Race, one of Matt's favorite events to watch. Unfortunately, we were not able to get tickets for that weekend but we were able to watch them qualify and practice the day before the big race, which was awesome to see. If you ever have the opportunity to go, I recommend it. It is a fun way to watch planes fly super fast through an oversized obstacle course.
Next, we went to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. Growing up my dad was a HUGE fan of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Since he has not had the opportunity to come here yet, I knew I had to go for him and see what it was all about. Even if you are not a huge fan of racing, or even like cars, there is still a lot of history on the cars and racing in general which is fascinating to see. It is worth the time you spend to go.
Our next stop was to the Indiana State Museum. This museum is huge, with over three floors of exhibits to see and observe, you can easily spend a full day in here. Matt and I rushed through most of the exhibits, some were under construction at the time, but really focused on the ones we found to be of most interest to us. Their memorabilia of 60's til the 80's is impressive, with items from famous TV shows and movies, like Star Wars. We spent as much time as possible going through, which for us was well worth the time we had. Afterward we did drive by Lucas Oil Stadium where the Indianapolis Colts play as well as Monument Circle (which we stopped briefly to see the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the middle of the street - since they were not doing tours that day due to construction). We returned to our Italian families home for dinner and rest but really enjoyed the half day we had available to spend in downtown Indianapolis.
The next morning I woke up really excited to finally be able to knock another city off my list: Minneapolis. The weather was horrible, as an upcoming snowstorm was rolling in, so we had to take our plane a bit out of the way (over Iowa), to finally land in the chilly saturday morning. The trees were a vibrant red when we landed, as fall already began in the midwest at this time of year (it smelled as if it was going to snow that day). We had snacked the entire flight so when we arrived, we grabbed our rental car and headed straight to the hotel to drop off our luggage and headed to Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA). We easily spent a few hours getting lost in MiA as there was at least 3 floors of art to see. It was massive. I really loved this part of our trip. There were a lot of pieces the museums in Virginia simply do not get so it was really lovely to see new art pieces. There were so many wonderful artists and exhibits to see. I really recommend taking a full day if you can to enjoy this museum.
When we left, it began to rain, so we ran over to Spyhouse Coffee (Northeast location) to warm up. I loved this little spot. They had turned an old brick warehouse building in the historic district into this local coffee joint and it was busy. But each coffee was spot on and they had a lot of great options to fuel your busy day. We spent a bit of time here people watching and drying off after getting caught without bringing our umbrellas! Oops!
One of the things I wanted to see most in the city was the murals. This particular lovely mural is downtown at Schmitt Music. And, it is not just random notes. It is a piano piece written by French composer Maurice Ravel called "Gaspard de la Nuit". This particular section is difficult to play for a solo pianist - depicted on the building this is the third movement, called "Scarbo".  You can hear it played here. The wall has even been featured in Time Magazine in 1972. Go by and see it, the lot beside the building is actually a public parking lot.
By this time we had decided to get a quick snack and decide what we wanted to do for dinner. So, we went to Milkjam Creamery.You may have seen this place on Instagram (or possibly a Buzzfeed article or two) featuring the infamous neon sign "I <3 Ice Cream". This place is magical. I ordered the "Jam Bun" it is an ice cream sandwich, where you select any scoop of ice cream to go between a warmed Glam Doll Donut (another local Twin Cities favorite). I chose the flavor "plot twist", almond ice cream with smoked almonds and chocolate-covered honeycomb. It was so very sweet but so very delicious and filling. These are big enough to share. And, you should because they are that good!
Leaving Milkjam, we were walking back to our car when I spotted yet another famous mural. #WhatLiftsYou : I am Limitless. This was again in another mini public parking lot and easily accessible. I could not resist!
After chowing on ice cream and getting soaked in the rain for a very worthwhile photo, it was time for dinner and we picked French Meadow Bakery & Cafe. This place had stellar reviews but what drew us in was the local farms they support (who supplies them). They are ecologically conscious, supporting local efforts as well as organic and sustainable options. This place was amazing. We immediately sat at the retro teal bar, ordered drinks and took it all in. Their local beer selection was on par for Matt and their sustainable wines were an easy choice for me in a carafe. But, their menu was what stood out the most. They cook with seasonal produce so their menu changes. I happily ordered the vegan butternut squash ravioli with walnuts and browned ghee sauce. It was phenomenal. Each bite was as good as the one before. If you are in the area, check them out. They also have an impressive bakery area for great to-go bites as well.

Our last stop ended but being the Mall of America, simply out of curiosity but after a few rounds around the massively oversized mall, it was time to head back to our hotel to sleep before the long flight home. While I truly recommend coming in the summer, I will be coming back regardless as a single day was not enough time to see both cities. St. Paul was simply too far away to get to visit anything over on that side so we will return at some point. If you have any suggestions for our return trip, let me know!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Wedding Wednesday: Selecting a Location

Once we got engaged, we knew it was time to start thinking about where we wanted to get married. This would ultimately impact WHEN we would get hitched. I knew I wanted a spring wedding and Matt really did not care. So, when we returned home, and began thinking about the initial planning stages of wedding prep, it was time to start thinking about a location. We both fell in love in Richmond, so for us, having our wedding in my hometown was a no-brainer.

When we began looking for locations around the area, we had a few things we wanted for our big day.
  • Option for an outdoor ceremony/reception - 100% outside if we could
  • Close to lodging for out-of-town guests
  • A location within our budget (20-30% of the total budget) 
  • An on-site coordinator we could easily contact - potential day of coordinator?
So, with our checklist in mind, we began reaching out to various locations for tours/talks about wedding day preparation. We sent e-mails, introducing ourselves and asking to meet directly to take a tour. If you are having trouble penning an e-mail, here is my suggestion to start:

Good Afternoon X,

My fiancee and I just recently got engaged and we came across your location on X. We are looking to have our ceremony/reception/both at your location and would love to meet with your coordinator to take a tour and answer a few questions we have. Please let us know what times you are available to meet. We look forward to meeting with you to discuss this further.

Thank you,

I had a lot of positive responses - some I called using similar wording - and was able to get appointments set up fairly quickly. If the vendor didn't send any information (or we could not find it on their site), we armed ourselves with questions we wanted to ask regarding our big day. Here are some of the questions we asked to get you started:
  • Do you have X date available (or any of this Month/Year)?
  • What is your maximum capacity?
  • Do you allow an onsite ceremony? If so, is there an additional fee for this?
  • Is there a location for the wedding party to get ready?
  • Is there an outline of the costs/fees outlined regarding the rental of the facility?
  • What is included in your rental fee?
  • Do you provide chairs/tables/linens/silverware/decorations/chair covers/lighting ?
  • Do you have a preferred vendor list - or a specific caterer we have to use?
  • What is your alcohol policy? Do we need to obtain a license to serve alcohol?
  • Is there an onsite coordinator we will be working with? Are they included in the fees?
  • What are the restrictions for your venue?
  • Is there a specific time the event must end?
  • What is the payment schedule?
When we arrived at the location we ultimately picked, most of the questions on our list were already  from their website or from the onsite coordinator (who was giving us the tour) answered before we asked. While the venue had an external vendor we had to use for catering (something we actually wanted to avoid, but were okay with since we love this particular restaurant), we were overall happy with our selection. Not only is our location historic but it is also beautiful and had everything else we desired.

We really lucked out with our location since honestly when we did the tour 'we just knew' it was the place for us. I know a lot of people say that and it seems corny and unrealistic but I knew the moment we walked out to the area our wedding would take place, I could see myself getting married right there. I honestly believe if you have your hesitations about getting married or something in the process, there is a reason for it. Discuss this with your partner to decide if it will really be a hinderance to your big day. After all, in the end, you want to be happy with the location you choose, not just because you are spending so much but also because a lot of your decisions about the wedding day will also be impacted by your location/venues.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Atlanta, GA and New Orleans, LA

I am very fortunate to be engaged to a pilot - it certainly adds some perks to the relationships. Like, being able to fly with him when a plane has to go down for maintenance. Since the plane is empty, I have the rare opportunity to fly with him in the front (my favorite spot- and a killer view). Back in August we traveled from VA to Atlanta to drop off one of the planes for an engine overhaul, which meant for a short weekend away.
I had not been to Atlanta since college so I was happy to return to get the opportunity to explore a bit more. Though we only had a half day before flying out to NOLA, we did want to spend some time and enjoy a few things in the city. So, after landing the plane, grabbing an uber, and a quick pit stop to the hotel to drop off our luggage, it was time to get out to the city. First stop was the Georgia Aquarium. Even if you are not a kid, this will be such a fun place to visit. There is so much to see and do- it is absolutely huge. You can easily spend a full day here (and I recommend it). We enjoyed the dolphin show and seeing the Otters the best. Go through the tunnel of the oversized tank and you will truly get a 180 degree view of true ocean life. It is mesmerizing.
After our aquarium visit, it was off to Centennial Olympic Park across the street. The park commemorates when the city hosted the 1996 Olympic Games - this is where the athletes stayed. This is worth walking, especially in the summertime. I recommend bringing a picnic lunch and hanging out by the Fountain of Rings. There are great vendors around for water/drinks too. This has an audio walking tour you can do as well. Bonus: the park has free wi-fi to enjoy near the visitors center. This green oasis has free concerts at lunchtime and boasts different music genres from jazz or rock. There is something for everyone here.
One of the best views of the city, where you can also enjoy a cocktail and dinner, is at Sun Dial. The food we found was not the best but we still enjoyed the views. The bar area rotates around, so within 30 minutes, you can sit in the same seat and see the entire skyline. *Update: Since an accident recently, they have disabled this feature* They also have viewfinder spots where you can view the skyline from set areas, separate from those who are dining in. We recommend cocktail hour here.  Afterwards, we returned to our hotel for the evening, as we had a SUPER early departure into NOLA the next morning. Atlanta is definitely on our list of cities to return to, due to our limited time we had. 
Morning came way too soon for us, but we were up early and happy to have a shuttle take us into the airport for our early morning departure to NOLA. I truly recommend finding a hotel in Atlanta that has this service, it is easier when you do not have to worry about a rental car return at such a majorly busy airport, which is why we opted to not get a rental car during our time in Atlanta.
Landing in New Orleans in August is a different kind of hot. It is a southern humidity hot. And, there is nothing quite like it. It was like a heat wave hit at 8am. But, with a storm rolling in, we felt we had an advantage, as southern storms tend to cool temps. (BTW, we were right). We took an uber from the airport to the hotel and were happy with how quick the drive was, even during rush hour. We dropped off our luggage, and began walking around. NOLA is a fantastic city for walking and we did a lot of it. Our first stop was St Louis Cathedral. If you have seen photos of NOLA, it is likely you have seen this major monument of the city, overlooking Jackson Square. It is a beautiful building and one of the oldest in the city.
Jackson Square is bustling with life, from live jazz bands to vendors and a mini-market, there is so much happening around to see and experience. NOLA is known for their food: a mix of creole and french cuisine mixed in one. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else and this is one of the reasons foodie call it a foodie's bucket list mecca. Our first stop was to Tableau, a mix of these two cuisines. We nabbed a spot on the balcony, overlooking Jackson Square and were not disappointed. We did the three course lunch special: Turtle Soup and Tableau Salad for course 1, fried oyster po boy and chicken tableau for course 2 and split a banana foster cheesecake. Everything was stellar.
Next up was the riverwalk along the Mississippi River. We absolutely loved this. As we watched the steamboats leave, we heard musicians playing on the benches the most beautiful jazz I have ever heard. It was magical. NOLA is such a lovely city. You can feel the love of the city in the people and we truly had a great walk along the river. But, it was time to keep going. Next up was the infamous Bourbon Street. Bourbon Street (non Mardi Gras) was quite meh. It was a lot of repeat bars and definitely more towards the party crowd. I mean, we were there during lunch time mid week, but it just did not live up to the hype as shown on Mardi Gras. We were so disappointed we didn't even take a photo there.
One of the places I was most excited about was Hotel Monteleone. This hotel is quite famous, and haunted. But, it is exciting for one big reason. It has the Carousel Bar. Not only is it a true to size actual carousel in the lounge area, the seats rotate around. It is also known for inventing the drink: The Sazerac! If you go, it is a must order. They were phenomenal. We went in to escape the rain, and had quite a few amazing drinks while we waited for the rain to pass. It was well worth the time spent in there, watching the bartenders create concoctions old school. It was worth the watch. If you want a really great place to go, this is a top 5 favorite for us!
No trip to New Orleans is complete without a beignet. We went to Cafe Beignet down the street and grabbed a praline beignet and chicory coffee (a NOLA tradition). I found these too sweet for me personally but they were quite decadent. I really loved people watching from this spot and found it to have a true paris-esque feel to it. It is a nice spot to stop and grab something quick to snack on. Next up, we passed by the House of Blues (they didn't have a show that night or we would have gone), but we did snap a photo. If you find they have a show, I recommend going. This is a super fun venue for live music and must for anyone who really loves music.
As the rain finally let up, it was time to grab a bite to eat before our scheduled walking tour. We were told to meet at Vacherie in Hotel St. Marie. Since we had not eaten in awhile and we were hungry, we decided to grab an early dinner. I had their etouffee, which was stellar!! If you ever have the opportunity to go here, you will not be disappointed. They had some of the best homemade cajun food I have ever had. There is so much flavor in their dishes, it cannot be beat. The gator sausage sliders were pretty good and their local beer flight is a great option as well. The historic walking tour with Strange True Tours was one of the best decisions we did. Although we did not take any photos during our walk, we were really impressed with all of the history in New Orleans, especially from the point-of-view from a local NOLA resident (who happens to love history as much as we do). Our tour lasted over an hour and was a perfect mix of haunted tales, history and interesting facts about the city, including walking by sites where famous shows and movies have been filmed. It was a blast. Honestly, I did not want it to end. There was so much to learn.
But as our tour came to an end, it was time to head back to the riverwalk area to the French Market. One thing I loved about NOLA is the art. From murals to statues, there is so much vibrant life. The buildings are various different colors and there is life booming at every corner of the city. This is a very busy part of the city, but notably because if its close location to the river and shops. Some of the best food is in this area- with parking lots in abundance, it's the center of the bustling part of town.
Our last stop of the evening before heading back to the hotel was for dessert at Cafe du Monde. NOLA is known for beignet but the true mecca for this decadent dessert is Cafe du Monde. They are world famous for these pillows of goodness. And, they are cheap. We found the lines to be short and the to-go window the best way of getting one. Simply go up to the window (cash-only) and order a bag of these. And, take them with you to the nearest park bench to enjoy. While sitting down for breakfast would be ideal for beignets, I found that since they are always open, you can go all day long and enjoy them. And, we almost did! They put so much powdered sugar in the bag that after eating our half dozen, we had more than enough left for a dozen more. Perfect ending to a fun-filled day.
Day 2 in NOLA was somewhat pre-planned. So first stop on our busy itinerary was for breakfast at PJ's Coffee, located right in our hotel. I grabbed a large iced coffee and this spinach and feta pastry (along with two large bottles of water) to go.
We headed straight on over to New Orleans Tour Hub NOLA Cycles to pick up our bike rentals. We had three hours to bike the city and it did not disappoint. Even without having a car, biking is a pretty good option. Unlike our trip to Savannah (using an electric bike there), we still enjoyed biking around town manually. We eventually bike from the main canal area to the Lafitte Greenway. While most of this path has sections still under construction, we enjoyed biking this area. There is a lot to see and do by bike, but be warned, these locals are not the biggest fans of bike traffic and we witnessed two separate bikers almost get hit.
One of the best things to do by bike is to visit the neighborhoods. Getting lost is kind of the best thing in NOLA, when you stumble upon a new street with such beautiful homes, it is hard to just find one favorite. No two homes are the same color and they take pride in being unique. It was one of my favorite things about NOLA (besides the etouffee)!
So, about half way through our bike ride, we were getting hungry for a bite to eat. So, when we bike and saw a charming little restaurant called Horn's in the neighborhood we were biking, we knew we had to check it out. The thing about NOLA is the portions are just tremendous. It is like going home and getting a feast, where family acts as if you have not eaten in months. I ordered the etouffee (which was so filling) and Matt ordered the shrimp po boy that was overwhelming. And with the prices so reasonable, this was a top contender on our list of places we went that weekend.
Continuing our bike ride around the French Quarter from Frenchman Street to Treme, we were overwhelmed. There simply was not enough time to take pictures of every house we found. 
One of the coolest places we stumbled across on our bike ride was Dr. Bob's Art. This particular artist is quite famous in NOLA, for his folk art that captions "Be Nice or Leave", this self-taught artist is a true salt of the earth kinda fellow. And his art speaks to it, transforming normal everyday items into art pieces. Def check him out and his space. While you cannot take photos inside his space, it is a unique spot we recommend checking out.
Once we dropped off our bikes, it was time to hit the famous French Market for a snack and to cool off. One of the other areas of the market is an outdoor vendor marketplace with something for everyone, from gifts and souvenirs to places to grab a drink and a bite to eat. This is a great spot to find something that will appease your senses. We went for Alberto's Cheese and Wine for a bottle of wine to split and hit up Loretta's Authentic Pralines to get another praline beignet. Alberto's was not as impressive as we had hoped for but Loretta's knocked it out of the park. Not only were these people just the kindest folks but the their beignets were the perfect sweet treat. You have to stop here. Trust me on this! And, what is NOLA without seeing a street performer or two lurking nearby. Again, people watching in NOLA is a must!
One thing we did not really plan on going to (but they had an opening so we said WE HAD TO) was Commander's Palace. Once Matt found out there was an opening at the end of their lunch rush, I knew we had to go. So, he made a reservation and we quickly ran back to the hotel to change and Uber over. And, we made it just in time! If you come to NOLA, you have to try to get a reservation for this swanky spot (yup, a dress code is enforced). Commander's Palace is the place of nostalgia; it is iconic. But, if you only come for one thing, come for lunch. I have heard their jazz brunch is the best in the city, but lunchtime is still my go-to for one reason alone: 25 cent martinis. Yes, any martini is 25 cents. And they are heavenly. I loved my lunch (i got the duck and foie gras 'ravioli', angus burger and dessert was turtle cheesecake a la mode). I will say this was a top meal. The ravioli was outstanding and above any expectation I had walking in. 
We decided after our late lunch it was time to walk around a bit, to some of the local shops before heading back into the main part of town, via streetcar. This was an idea setup honestly for the city as the streetcars are efficient and can really take you most places in the city you need to go. It is inexpensive and is not difficult to figure out. We took the streetcar back into town.
On our last evening we knew we wanted to hear live jazz before returning home. We ventured down to the Marigny District to Frenchman Street to find a place for us. There are so many bars and restaurants that have live jazz bands that play every night. It is so hard to find just one. We really liked The Spotted Cat Music Club and listened to Miss Sophie Lee for a bit before moving on.
We were told to just "walk around and when you hear something you like, walk in". So, that is what we did. We walked in a few places but sadly found they were cash-only so we left, until we got to Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro. We loved watching Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra perform that evening. Those guys were so talented and they had so much fun. It was intoxicating. How can you not have fun listening to jazz like that? Fun fact: Delfeayo Marsalis was the mentor of Harry Connick, Jr. of all famous stars you may know today. These guys rocked the house and we loved it. We recommend a balcony spot to see everyone on stage if you plan on attending here. 
After listening to such amazing music, it was time for a bite to eat. We opted for Dat Dog on Frenchman Street.  This joint is a NOLA favorite for their fun themed hotdogs and star wars decor. I enjoyed my etouffee hotdog - and it was stuffed to the brim. I was happy I only ordered one hotdog! However, we could not have picked a better time to sit down if we had wanted to. Right as we sat down on their second floor balcony overlooking the street, on that very corner a band started playing for a large crowd that began forming. By the time we left, the street was so jammed packed the cars could not get through. It was a party right on that street corner. These guys were so talented and they just began playing to raise money for their band. This is how NOLA is every night. It is the city that lives and parties all night long.

Anthony Bourdain summed up it up best: "Go because it's crazy, borderline dysfunctional, permissive, shabby, alcoholic and crazy - and because it looks like nowhere else."

If you ever have the opportunity to visit this vibrant city that is bursting with life, I highly recommend it. This city is booming with people, good people, and they will be good to you. GO! You will be glad you did.

Monday, November 6, 2017

4th of July Weekend in Maine

I am so fortunate to be marrying a pilot. While he flies for a private company, there are some perks of his job. He gets a lot of hotel and airfare points. He gets to visit so many cities. But, my favorite by far are the opportunities I get to go along with him. After our engagement, we considered consolidating our travel and focus it on our honeymoon, so we decided to forgo the large fall vacation all together. Fortunately for us, there was an opening in his flight for me to travel with him to Maine. All I had to do was sit in the front seat beside him. Not. A. Problem.
Maine in July is absolutely wonderful. The weather is just perfect compared to the humidity we get in Virginia. Since we had plans last summer to Maine that fell through, when the opportunity to go again arose, we jumped for it. We landed in Portland, picked up our rental car and headed out for lunch. After a flight, it was a necessity. We stopped at Miller Brothers Seafood. I knew during this trip I was going to enjoy a few LOBSTAH rolls, so when we stopped, I knew what I was going to order. In comparison to all the lobster rolls we had, this was my least favorite, but it was filling!
Afterward it was back on the road. What I have learned about Maine is that you really need rental car for the state. So many major cities we wanted to visit were so far apart. We ended up driving to Booth Bay, Maine. We stopped into town to Stone Fox Farm Creamery for Maine Blueberry Ice Cream. On a hot summer day, this was a big treat. It gave us time to see this mini-festival they had going on for the weekend and gave us a bit of time to stretch our legs from being in the car.
We continued up the road to Ocean Point Nature Preserve (which also doubles as a local beach). With so many great walking paths along the oceanside along the rocks, it is a great stop! Limited parking makes this difficult to get to so if you cannot parallel park well, you might want to pass on this one. Our rental car was on the side of a mini cliff. I loved the seaside cliffs but the Maine-style homes were the sights to be seen! Back in the car we went to hit up our next stop!
If you have ever seen a US Quarter with Maine on the back of it, chances are you have seen this spot: Pemaquid Point Light. With the $3 admission fee, mostly to cover parking and upkeep of the grounds, this amazing little park is one of the best spots for families to visit in Maine. From the seaside cliffs to the picnic tables, this is a spot most will truly enjoy. Maine is known for their maritime trade industry, including fishing, lobstering and the like, the US Mint added this picturesque location. It is a must see in Maine!
As it was narrowing dinner time, we needed to started heading back to our hotel. We drove back through Damariscotta county and ended up at Damariscotta River Grill. Honestly, I was not sure of what to make of this little coastal gem but I was truly impressed. I ended up doing the Three Course Price Fix Menu: Mushroom Crepes, Roasted Beet Salad (with goat cheese), and creme brulee with a glass of red wine. It was utter perfection and one of my favorite meals during the trip. Matt ordered a cup of clam chowder and shredded pork - then split the creme brulee with me.  And laid our heads to rest back in Portland at DoubleTree by Hilton.
When we woke up for Day 2, it was still slightly dark out. We grabbed some water and granola bars and headed out to Acadia National Park. It was a bit tough to get to considering all the construction going on, but we finally made it. Entry fees are $25/car. We recommend parking in one of the larger lots and taking the FREE park buses (thanks to LL Bean) to your hiking site, as parking is VERY LIMITED. We decided to hike Beehive Mountain (Precipice Trail was closed due to birds nesting)- because we wanted to do the iron rungs. We took the bus to Sand Beach- and crossed the street to the starting spot for our hike. While this tends to be a popular hike, it is not easy for the novice of hiker and not user friendly compared to other hikes. However, if you are up to the challenge, it is one I would recommend doing. It is fun!
Since we weren't able to pack a meal, we grabbed our pack and took the transit bus into Bar Harbor for lunch. We grabbed drinks and sandwiches at Downeast Deli and took them to Agamont Park. Lunch is such a busy time of day, especially in the summer (and while we were there a cruise ship was docked) so expect lines and waits. We didn't have that much time so we opted for a grab-and-go option and a picnic worked for us. The deli was perfect- I was able to get a chicken salad sandwich on gluten-free bread and Matt had cold cuts. It was exactly what we needed after our hike. We took some chips, a banana and extra water back in our pack for our next hike and grabbed our bus back to Acadia! Note: always check transit times, they typically run every 15 minutes for most bus stops but beware they do stop running at certain times of the day so be prepared or you will walk back!

After grabbing our bus, we got off at our original stop at Sand Beach and walked the street side trail to see Thunder Hole. It was incredible. Be careful getting down to it, the steps are really slippery! It was amazing to hear it sound loud and howl, much like the sound of a storm. Every time a large wave would come in, it would growl and rumble loudly. Take video to show family back at home. It was really cool!
Instead of heading back on the bus, we opted to continue on the park loop trail up to Otter Cliff. We wanted to walk along the rocks and cliffside and it was well worth the walk. It was easy to do and quite novice for those truly inexperienced hikers. It was pretty flat and not muddy; it was well marked. Each section of cliffs made another vantage point even better than the last. It was one of those views you wouldn't soon forget. We took the most time walking along park loop trail to the Otter Cliff because the views were just that good and the trails were easy to follow. It was quite a long trek we decided to take but I am so glad we did.
Otter Cliff, seen from this photo, was just outstanding. Most rocks as you can see were quite wet and slippery so we did not venture out onto them, but the vantage point from the road above was nice. Go and park nearby if you can, but be careful as that is a blind bend and cars do not always see pedestrians crossing, and some do not stop as they should. After enjoying Otter Cliff, it was back to the car to drive to Cadillac, as the shuttles were about to stop for the evening. We grabbed our car and made off for the other side of the park. With limited daylight, we had to hurry.
Getting to Cadillac Mountain is no easy feat. The road up to Cadillac is very windy and offers a lot of turns around tight corners but the views up are amazing glimpses at other parts of Acadia. Once we got to the parking area, it was quite crowded, as many tend to come toward the evening hours to watch the sunset. We did not have too much trouble finding parking ourselves. While the car ride up is one for the books, the panoramic views make the drive worth it! It was stunning! It is the highest point in the North Atlantic seaboard and the first place to view the sunrise (October-March). Take time to walk around and see every vantage point. You can hike Cadillac Mountain but I preferred to drive up. We took a lot of photos and videos to share back home with family and friends. It was the best view by far of the park!
We decided to not stay atop Cadillac Mountain til sunset so we left, venturing our way down back to the entrance. We did, however, decide to make a slight detour to see The Bubbles. Yes, that boob-like formation passed Jordan Pond is known as The Bubbles. While there is a trail that will take you to the bubbles from Jordan Pond entrance (it makes for a great day hike), we simply did not have enough time. At this time of day we found this part of the park to be peaceful, quiet and serene.
By the time we got back on the road, we totally had missed out on dinner time. Since our ride back put us back in town after most places had closed, we ended up at McDonalds for the McLobster Roll. I was not about to indulge in fast food seafood but Matt decided he wanted one. He said it was not too bad. I grabbed a salad to go and was content.
Day 3 of our trip was 4th of July so we got dressed, left our hotel and headed next door to Dunkin Donuts for coffee and breakfast. It was a really hot morning so an oversized iced coffee was in order as we made our way to downtown Rockland. Rockland is quite the small, quaint town in Maine but it is beaming with art and life. Thanks to their art walk, you do not even need to visit the museum to enjoy all the city has to offer. We took a stroll around town to see the LOVE sign and other art pieces before headed to the lighthouse. I has been excited to visit the Project Puffin Visitor Center, but they were closed for tours that day. If you have the opportunity, go visit!
Rockland Harbor Lights is one of those stops you have to go to if you are in Rockland. Its free to visit and a fairly easy walk. While the larger stones are uneven, and not easy for older or injured visitors, it is a great view of Rockland from the point.