Friday, November 17, 2017

Yarra Valley Wine Tasting

Trip date: February 2017

After our night on the town, Claudette and I both spent the morning working. As I wrapped for the day I got a text from her in the other room asking if I was up for going wine tasting. Do people actually say no that question?

We drove just 40-minutes from their home, through beautiful countryside and vineyards, to the famous Yarra Valley. I've been to many many wine regions, but I can honestly say I've never seen a vineyard with a mob of kangaroos hopping through it until then!

Our first stop was Mandala Wines. We had some excellent Pinot Noir here and also some great sparkling blanc de blanc. I'd absolutely recommend this stop!

From here we made our way to Chandon, not for a tasting but to have a lovely lunch in their restaurant which looks out onto the vineyards. The food here was excellent; we had a great charcuterie board and a goat cheese, asparagus, quinoa salad. They were promoting a new product called Chandon S, which is sparkling blended with orange bitters; very nice and refreshing with our meal. 

At Coldstream Hills we tasted some really refined single vineyard Pinot Noirs. Another big thumbs up.  

Our last taste of the day was at Punt Road. I can't say exactly why but I just loved this place! Absolutely delicious Pinot Noir (we tasted through various varietals also) at a great price! I even bought a bottle to bring home which I had said I wasn't going to do. And I just opened that bottle last week for some friends and we all loved it!

So there are just four lovely stops for the next time you are in the Yarra Valley. I've got a map now with about 20 more for my next visit!

Big thanks to my driver and wine guide Claudette!

Melbourne photos here

Other posts from this trip: 
The Longest Way to Oz
An American Down Under
Meet Up in Melbourne

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Meet Up in Melbourne

Trip date: February 2017

My lovely Sydney hosts Rachel and Olivia took me to the airport for my flight to Melbourne on Sunday morning. I was so shocked when I went through security; no boarding pass needed! Liquids were allowed (any size!)! No lines! It was just like the states in the 90’s!

When I landed in Melbourne my friend Claudette was there waiting at my gate! Because boarding passes are only needed to board a plane! Brilliant!

We drove to her, David, and Scarlett’s house in MacLeod, which is a really nice suburb of Melbourne. They were hosting me for the next three days and I was looking forward to catching up as I hadn’t seen them much since they moved from Seattle years ago.

David made us gin and tonics and Claudette showed me around their gorgeous home. The backyard butts up to a wildlife preserve so I was on the lookout for kangaroos!

We had a lovely lunch which included champagne before I took a quick nap and got ready for the evening. Claudette and I took the train into the city and she played tour-guide walking me around and showing me some of the really beautiful buildings. Melbourne is gorgeous!

We then grabbed an Uber and headed to the Fitzroy area to have cocktails at Black Pearl. This bar and their bartenders were absolutely great! And it wasn’t open but there is an attic bar upstairs that they showed me which is super pretty. Highly recommend cocktails here if you are in Melbourne, and since they are #22 on the 50 Best Bar list it’s safe to say that others agree.

We took an Uber back to the Riverwalk area where we met Claudette’s sister Roberta and brother-in-law Oscar, as well as David for dinner at Rosetta.

Rosetta is one of Chef Neil Perry’s restaurants and it is beautiful with very high-end service. We had a hell of a good time and the food was delicious.

There is a big casino right on the river here and after dinner we walked through it to find a bar for nightcaps. A few rounds of cognac and then we grabbed an Uber ride home, which included a bit of drama as we were involved in a fender bender. Luckily no one was hurt!

Claudette’s parents were Scarlett-sitting and when we got home her mom decided she wanted a nightcap too so David broke out the cognac. It was so nice to get a chance to meet them. The entire family evening had been incredibly fun!

We stayed home the next night (after we spend the day tasting wine in the Yarra Valley- more on that later) with Claudette making a delicious dinner and David opening some lovely champagne and wine from his cellar, including one from Oscar's winery. During dinner we saw a group of kangaroos in the reserve! They see them quite often but this time two of them were boxing which they said was pretty rare!

After dinner we watched Game of Thrones in their theater room and then Claudette and I made cookies for Scarlett to take to school for Valentine's day.

The next morning I spent some time working and then Claudette and I went on a walk through the reserve. We came right up on the mob of kangaroos hanging out in the grass! So very cool and a great last memory of the area.

At the airport I had a sausage roll and an Australian Sauvignon Blanc, as you do, before boarding my flight to the Gold Coast.

My time in Melbourne was over way too quick; I can’t wait to go back and see more and do some road trips!

Melbourne photos here

Other posts from this trip: 
The Longest Way to Oz
An American Down Under

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

An American Down Under

Trip date: February 2017

I was 1 ½ days late but I was finally in Sydney! And I was staying at Dave and Rachel's beautiful home in Mosman with stunning views of Balmoral Bay. Very, very lovely.

After picking me up from the airport Dave had some errands to run so I took a very refreshing swim in their pool, unpacked, and relaxed.

That evening Rachel and I took the incredibly cute Mosman ferry across Sydney Harbor and into the city. Sydney is obviously well known for its iconic skyline and for good reason, it is beautiful!

We were going to a movie at the St. George OpenAir Cinema and had a bit of time to wander around the waterfront and stop for a drink at the Opera House outdoor bar first.

Then we made our way around the park to the theater grounds. Rachel had gotten us special tickets so we were able to have dinner and wine in the outdoor lounge before seeing the show, the premiere of the documentary Whiteley.

It was an absolutely gorgeous night, the film was super interesting, and the 30-foot screen which rose from the harbor was a bit surreal. I barely noticed my jet lag! If you get a chance to get tickets to a film here it is really a special experience and I'd absolutely recommend it!

The next morning, after a few hours of work, I walked down to Balmoral Beach and had some sun, sand, and sea time. The beach was almost mine to myself; unheard of! I also had to walk back up the fairly steep hill so I had some exercise too!

Dave took me to The Boathouse for lunch. It sits right on the pier and is super cute and casual. And my fish and chips were delicious! Great spot if you are in Balmoral.

It was Rachel's birthday and that evening they were having some people over for drinks and a casual dinner, so after our lunch, Dave and I ran around the neighborhood picking up things from the deli, florist, bakery, etc. The area is filled with cute shops!

The night was filled with lots of champagne, wine, sausage sizzles, and celebrating! It was great to be there for Rachel's birthday and so fun to catch up with friends!

It had been really hot since I landed and the next day was a record scorcher at 102F! Rachel and I took her youngest daughter to ballet and then did a short walk along the cliffs of Georges Heights, it was much too hot to do one of the longer cliff hikes; there were actual warnings to keep kids and pets inside.

The next morning I was heading to Melbourne (I'd be back in Sydney in about 1 ½ weeks) so that night Dave, Rachel, and I headed out on the Mosman ferry again and into the city.

First up were cocktails at the newly opened PS40 that Dave had just heard about. We had really delicious drinks here and the service was super nice! They were still in the process of building their full program which I'm sure is completely running now. I'd check it out if you're in the Central Business District (CBD) area.

Round two was the much-lauded Baxter Inn which is hidden in an alley and down a set of grimy stairs. I was excited to try this cocktail bar as it has been on the World's 50 Best Bars for the last couple of years, this year coming in at 45. But for me, it was too loud, too American, too old west, too theme-y. The drinks were very good and their Scotch list is ridiculous so YMMV.

We had a really delicious dinner at Mr. Wong also in the CBD. The space here is uber cool, and the menu was fun. Not to mention my top-notch tour guides!
I still hadn't eaten kangaroo, Pavlova, or an Aussie meat pie but I had had a small taste of this beautiful city and I was looking forward to coming back after traveling around a bit, and trying more!

Sydney photos here
Previous post: The Longest Way to Oz

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Longest Way to Oz

Trip date: February 2017

Sometimes I feel like I haven't been to the "normal" places that people travel to, such as the case with Australia. But I knew I'd go, especially as a small group of friends who I met when they lived in Seattle has been moving back to their homeland over the last years. And with one of them having a birthday approaching I announced my plans to finally travel down under!

With a 15 hour flight from the west coast, crossing the international dateline, and a 17 hour time difference I decided to splurge and purchased a Business Class ticket on Qantas (which I had never flown before.) I was excited!

The Monday morning I was to fly SEA to SFO to SYD I woke up to snow! Anyone who's ever been in Seattle when there is snow knows that everyone freaks out and the city pretty much closes down. I sat in the Alaska Air 1st class lounge for 2 hours before they announced my flight was going to be delayed 5 hours and I most likely would not make my connection in SFO. Ugh.

A friend of mine drove down to the airport and met me for wine and dinner which helped to break up the time. Finally the flight took off and as we landed in SFO we were told that the Quantas flight had been delayed and was still at the gate! Great news! But after 2 more hours of sitting in the (crap) Business Lounge, they announced that due to mechanical issues the flight was canceled and we'd have to stay overnight.

Instead of queuing up to have the airline shuttle me to some random hotel, I used the Hotel Tonight app and booked my own within the guidelines of the reimbursement amounts.

I checked into the Sheraton 4 Points near SFO and was finally in bed at 2:30am. So far it had been 10 hours and I'd made it from Seattle to San Fran.

Tuesday I woke up, had some breakfast in the restaurant, did some work from my room, and tried desperately to get a hold of anyone at Quantas who could tell me the status of my flight and also where my luggage was.

Finally an agent on the phone suggested that I rebook as she felt that the rescheduled flight was going to be canceled again, still due to mechanical issues. If I wanted to stay Business Class I'd need to fly SFO to LAX to Brisbane to Sydney. Jesus.

I had negotiated a 4pm checkout and at that time I took the hotel shuttle to the airport where my first task was to track down my bag. Since no one from Quantas was at the airport (they had indeed canceled the only flight out) I went to the Alaska Air office and talked them into finding my bag. Success!

Next to the American Air check-in counter where I checked my bag, got my boarding passes to LA and then on to Brisbane, and then talked my way into a pass at the American Admiral Club. I had 2+ hours to wait and I was focused on the guacamole bar and drinking for free during my wait!

7:45pm I flew to LAX. I had another 2 hours before my flight to Australia which I passed in the very nice Qantas Lounge.

11:30pm Tuesday night, time to board my 747 to Oz. My Business Class seat was very cushy. I was handed a Kate Spade toiletries bag and also a pair of cotton pajamas. PAJAMAS!!! And after my multi-course dinner, wine, and cognac the flight attendant set up my lay-flat chair with a mattress!!!

32 hours after leaving my house in Seattle I was finally on my 14-hour flight to Brisbane. It was a very comfortable flight, most of it spent asleep in my Qantas pajamas on my lay-flat mattress.

I landed in BNE on Thursday and even though they have an automated customs process which is super quick, I had to recheck my bag and get to a different terminal for my domestic flight and it was too close of a connection. So the flight was missed but luckily they run flights hourly.

I had some breakfast and coffee in the Business Lounge before my last 2-hour flight of the journey and finally landed in Sydney. 1 ½ DAYS LATE!

My friend Dave met me at baggage with a luggage cart, a bottle of champagne, and a bouquet of flowers. And somehow that made the 2 canceled flights, 2 delayed flights, 1 missed flight, 4 actually flown flights, 1 hotel, and 5 airports not really matter much. I was in Australia for pretty much the month of February and couldn't wait to catch up with my friends and see their country!

Sydney photos here
Next up: An American Down Under

Monday, October 16, 2017

All Around Riga

Trip date: January 2017

After being in Riga for two full days we decided to take a day trip out to Jurmala. This pretty beach resort is just 30-minutes from the city and during the summer I could imagine it is a haven on the Gulf of Riga which connects to the Baltic Sea. During the winter it is a bit different!

We drove thru the small town and found parking near the beach so we could take a short walk around. It was a bit drizzly as we got out of the car, and it was cold! The old soviet-style buildings and hotels were interesting and we even found the bronze turtle statue that stares out to the gulf. 
From here we made a circle walking through more of the town. Some of the beach houses were very old and in need of repair while others were new and quite modern in their architecture. 

The main street is really cute and filled with shops; there was even a small Christmas Market going on. 

It was getting colder and it was also time for lunch so we drove to another part of the town, past very large mansions, to a fantastic little restaurant that sits right on the beach- 36.Line.

I had traditional veal pelmeni (dumplings) served in mushroom broth and sour cream to start, followed by a ridiculously huge pork shank. Everything was delicious and we had a front row seat to watch the snow as it started falling!

The snow continued to fall as we headed back to town, the city was so pretty! We walked past the Laima Chocolate clock (which was suppose to be some big deal but I wasn't impressed), and over the river past the Freedom Monument. We'd mostly been in the old town and now were in City Center.  We made our way to the Corner Housethe former headquarters of the KGB where you can walk thru an exhibit which explains the power and activity of this secret organization. There are also tours of the cellars, interrogation rooms, etc. which unfortunately were sold out when we arrived. I had gone to a similar museum in Vilnius

The next day we drove out of town again to Birini Palace. It was snowing quite hard when we left town and at one point as I drove through a very thick forested area it was so dark and snowing so hard that I couldn't see a damn thing! Finally it cleared as we neared the palace and we were rewarded with absolutely stunning views of the palace grounds!

The palace, which also is a hotel now, was built in 1860 and has lakes, parks, horses, a restaurant, etc. 

We were shown around a bit by one of the "castle keepers" and then were turned loose to explore on our own. It is very pretty; I wouldn't put it in your "not-to-miss" list but if you are in the area the pink castle is a beautiful site!

We had an average lunch at the on-site restaurant and then got back on the road. Our plan was to hit a few more castles before the end of the day as there were four in the nearby national park. But the snow started falling really hard again and we just didn't want to risk the roads so we headed back home and had a couple of cocktails!

On our last day in Riga we woke up to an actual snow storm! We had booked an Art Nouveau Architectural walking tour and spent 3 hours walking around the city which was freezing but so beautiful!

The buildings in Riga are so interesting, I highly recommend one of these walks which cost us 15 Euro each and included a coffee break (where I chose mulled wine and an apple caramel tart!). 

We all had early flights the next morning and shared a 5:30am taxi to the airport. Ugh. Forest, Thibault and I had an Air Baltic flight to Paris where we said goodbye after traveling around together for 2 weeks. I had a 3 hour layover before my flight to Seattle, so I spent some time duty free shopping before hitting the Delta lounge which is just ok at CdG. Then I had a very nice flight home in 1st class with multi-course meals, wine pairings, and a lay-flat bed. 

Another wonderful New Year's Eve trip was in the books! I was so charmed by Riga and the surrounding countryside. If you get the chance to visit I would absolutely go. And if you happen to be there during the holidays when there is snow and Christmas markets, then all the better!

Latvia photos are here.

You can also find photos of our trip on Instagram using the hashtag #BalticBash2016

Other posts from this trip:
36 Hour Parisian Birthday Party
Christmas in Beaujolais
Baltic Bash Kick Off
Out and About in Lithuania
Baltic Road Trip
A Very Baltic New Year
Latvian Eats & Drinks

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Latvian Eats & Drinks

Trip date: January 2017

We arrived in Riga from Lithuania and spent a very fun New Years Eve celebrating along the banks of the Daugava. We spent a total of six nights in this gorgeous city so we got to do a fair amount of exploring. It's such a beautiful place, I highly recommend the Baltic countries for their scenery, history, and even the food!

On our first night in town we needed a restaurant that was open late. We ended up picking Rozengrals which is medieval-style in a building that dates back to 1293! It was very fun for our first night and the food was quite good despite there not being electricity, real silverware, etc. There were dishes like rabbit stew with prunes, duck with cherry sauce, and a big pork shank served on a skewer meant for two!

We were all moving a bit slow on New Years Day so I cooked up a big brunch of potatoes and eggs for everyone, which took entirely too long as the stove had only 2 burners which barely got hot. Luckily we also had mimosas!

Later that evening a friend of Thibault's, who happened to be in town from Paris, came over and we all headed out to Peter's Brewhouse. This brewery serves three beers (light, dark, and red) all made on-site. We had some typical pub grub to go with our beers, including some really good bacon buns!

That night we did as the locals do and went to the buffet at Lido for dinner. Multiple friends with Latvian roots recommended the buffet so we were curious! Sunday night and the place was packed! We squeezed ourselves onto a small table and took turns at the different stations all with traditional Latvian food.

There were so many salads, and kabobs, and roasts, etc. And your meal started at about $10. It was all pretty good too! There are a few of them around the city, check it out!

We just happened upon a random whiskey bar as we left the restaurant so stopped in for a nightcap. Mine was a hot toddy; it's cold in Latvia in January!

One night we met our friend Sarah, who was also visiting, at Mute, an adorable little wine and cocktail bar. Unfortunately the night we came by they didn't have a bartender working (?!?) so only wine was available. I had a lovely glass of rosé champagne served in a gorgeous coup and also these amazing peppery cookies called Piparkukas, similar to gingersnaps.

From here we walked thru the snow to Valmiermuiza, a very cool brewery serving excellent food. We had their charcuterie platter, traditional garlic bread with sour cream sauce, and not so traditional buttermilk fried chicken nuggets. I was coming down with a cold so I tried a couple of their hot mulled beers before ditching my friends and grabbing an uber home to get some rest.

Another very well known and highly recommended tavern that we went to for lunch was Folkklubs. They are known for their traditional live folk music and they have the largest selection of beers in Riga. The subterranean space is really cool, with brick archways and lots of big wooden tables, perfect for having a group of friends trading toasts.

We had a very filling lunch of fried potatoes with a garlicky dipping sauce, a platter of cheeses and toasted bread, and then potato pancakes with bacon and sour cream! Traditional food is definitely a bit heavy!

We also had a chance to check out two restaurants doing modern Lativan cuisine in Riga. The first was Restaurant Forest and it was both beautiful and delicious!

We had a very nice dinner here and really liked how they used traditional ingredients like herring, mushrooms, and game in updated expressions. Dishes were plated artistically and the ingredients were very seasonal.

On our last evening in town Forest, Caitlin, and I went to 3 Pavari Restaurant. The decor is slick and modern and the menu read very well, lots of delicious things like rabbit, foie gras, elk, and lamb. Our cocktails had a lot of ingredients and garnishes in them; they were just ok and unfortunately the meal would echo the cocktails.

Our bread service came á la Jackson Pollock; each of us had a placemat of parchment paper which the server squirted various spreads in an abstract style. It was fun if a bit precious.

The food here was good but it felt like there was more thought put into how many ingredients could be used and how cool the presentation could be vs. the development of flavor. And it was the most expensive of our trip. But it also shows that the chefs in Latvia are exploring new trends and pushing some boundaries which I like.

We had a great time exploring the many food options in Riga!

Latvia photos are here.

You can also find photos of our trip on Instagram using the hashtag #BalticBash2016

Other posts from this trip:
36 Hour Parisian Birthday Party
Christmas in Beaujolais
Baltic Bash Kick Off
Out and About in Lithuania
Baltic Road Trip
A Very Baltic New Year