Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Hyvää Joulua From Santa's Village

Hyvää Joulua, or Merry Christmas to you!  Last year we spent Christmas in Helsinki, Finland and a few days later boarded an overnight train heading north to Lapland. After depositing our luggage in our private sleeping compartment -outfitted with bunk beds and a nicely stocked vanity and sink- we made our way to the dining car for some snacks, drinks, and games. Since our sleeping car was at the exact opposite end of the dining car it was a really long hike, we decided to hunker down for a while.

Finally turning in, we were rocked to sleep by the train traveling through the dark and awoke some hours later in Rovaniemi. It was VERY early in the morning so we had a bit of a wait before things started to open. We stored our luggage at the train station, had some coffee and rolls at the connected cafe, and then grabbed a bus which took us to the very outskirts of the town. Rovaniemi sits right on the Arctic Circle and is home to Santa Claus, not the North Pole as you may have been led to believe.
In our excitement we exited the bus at the wrong stop - Santa Experience theme park in Joulukka which is literally next door- we grabbed a taxi and arrived at Santa's Village. The sky was just starting to lighten up and as we walked outside we saw our first snow of the season. Huge fat flakes fell in the village decorated with Christmas trees, snow men, and lights. It really was magical.

And touristy! Santa's Village is made up of numerous shops selling everything from magnets to fox fur coats. There were reindeer rides, a traditional Lapland teepee, sledding hills, firepits, etc. The reservations to see the big man himself are done on a timed basis and we had a while to wait. We decided to have lunch inside the main building. Delicious salmon soup for me and a reindeer burger for Dayne. The owner was really interesting and told us how his family had been in the reindeer industry for generations. He explained that farmers notch the ears of their herds so that they are identifiable. The chairs in his restaurant showed off the different styles of notches.

Next we visited Santa's Post Office which to date had received around 16 million letters from around the world. We bought some cards and sat down at tables stocked with pens to fill them out. Then you choose to mail your letters either on that day or you can place them in the special red mailbox where they will be held and delivered at Christmas, even if you are there in January. Crazy little elves!
Finally it was time to see Santa! We got in line and expected to see him as we were ushered through the huge doors. But instead we were led to a coat check room and instructed that we weren't to use our cameras as Santa doesn't like you taking free photos it turns out. Then we joined a huge queue that snaked through an almost erie multi-level building. It was kind of dark, meant to resemble the interior of a clock, with gears and wheels rotating and ticking. The walls were decorated with photos of famous, and not so famous, folks meeting St Nick. 

After quite some time of inching through the building it was our turn. He welcomed us in both French and English (Santa speaks five languages fluently) and invited us to sit with him for a photo. 

Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!!!

All Santa Village photos here

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Eh-eh-o eh-o ... Pompeii!

I woke up this morning and that damn song was playing on the radio. It's in my head and it refuses to budge. "...And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we love..."

Ahhhhhhhh! We went to Pompeii once, about a million years ago, and I will tell you that there were no boy bands bopping about. We went for a day trip while staying in Sorrento, it was an easy 40 minute ride on the Circumvesuviana train,with lush scenery of the coast on one side and Mount Vesuvius on the other.

Walking around it was quite eerie to be visiting what was once a thriving Roman empire city, now just ruins left by the volcano we were so close to!

It had rained pretty hard that morning so many of the streets of the ancient city were puddles. We used the large rock steps to cross the street just as the locals would have back in 78AD or so.
We had audio guides so that we could go at our own pace, listening to interesting tidbits about various buildings, streets, neighborhoods, etc.

This bath was beautiful and so well preserved. I remember the coolness of the interior and how pretty the color of the walls were.

There is so much to see, it's quite amazing really. We couldn't get over the architecture, the city grid, the streets and "cross walks". All of it.

This was a food stall where locals could come and get some Italian take out!
This is the decorative door step of a now non-existent home, an ancient welcome mat of sorts.

I wouldn't miss visiting Pompeii if you are in the area, that is for sure! It is fascinating!

"...But if you close your eyes, Does it almost feel like, Nothing changed at all?..."

We jumped back on the Circumvesuviana for a 30 minute ride to Naples and made our way to Da Michele for what is arguably the best pizza in Naples. We had to take a number and hang out with the rest of Naples until a table was available. And then we had the most delicious Margherita pizza (for $5!) paired with cold ($1) beers.

We spent the rest of the afternoon just strolling around Naples, it's a big gritty city but that is its claim to fame. On top of the normal grime, they had been having trash strikes on and off since the 1990's. Piles of garbage striving to reach the height of Vesuvius itself were everywhere, we even witnessed a few being burned right on the main streets. 

But just like any large city there are also very pretty neighborhoods, parks, churches, etc. I'd like to do a bit more time in Naples if I'm ever in the area again.

We got back on the train to Sorrento but accidentally chose the wrong one- not the first time this has happen in Italy! So we literally circumvented Vesuvius as our train went all the way on the other side of it. A 90 minute train ride turned into about a 2 1/2 hour experience. We got back in Sorrento just in time to see the sky light the buildings up a lovely color and to have a martini.
All Pompeii and Naples photos here

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

From Honky Tonk to Hipsters, Nashville

Trip date: July 2014

I had been wanting to go to Nashville since I read about The Patterson House, a speak-easy style cocktail bar that opened in 2009. Then during Tales of the Cocktail in 2010 I had the opportunity to meet Josh Habiger who was heading up the cocktail program there, and he told me about a lot of cool things happening in his town, which made me want to go even more!

For the last few years it has seemed like I couldn't pick up a magazine without seeing an article about the Nashville food scene. I just had to go! I had to get a reservation at The Catbird Seat!

So finally I talked my girlfriend Judy, who lives in Indiana, into joining me for a long weekend. We got ourselves this cutest Airbnb and I cashed in some miles and flew out to the Music City. On a whim, my brother decided to come out for the weekend as well!

My flight arrived late so our plans to go out that first night were squashed but thanks to the traveling bar Judy had brought with her we were able to catch up over cocktails in our comfy living room. Our Airbnb was in East Nashville, you definitely need a car to get around as the city is pretty spread out, but everything seems to be about 20 minutes from each other. And they have Uber and Lyft services too!

On my first full day, we dove into Nashville mouth first!

Hot chicken, a Nashville invention of fried chicken painted with varying degrees of spicy pepper sauce, was my inaugural lunch. We lined up at Hattie B's, amongst locals and other tourists, all hungry for crunchy, spicy, fried chicken. There's an art to ordering, we picked it up by listening to others and were rewarded by compliments from our cashier. The south is full of politeness! Small dark, medium, baked beans, coleslaw, extra pickles, unsweet tea, for here. Thank you very much.

Oh yeah! We grabbed seats at a communal picnic table outside and dug in. The white bread on the bottom is great for soaking up spicy juices. The pickles are great for cutting the fat and the heat! One of the guys next to us was having a piece of "Shut the Cluck Up" which is the spiciest. He was sweating pretty heavily!

After lunch we headed to the Nashville Farmers Market. The market is open daily and is a collection of farm vendors, small stores, craft booths, and food stalls. All the farmers displayed their goods in baskets on low tables; rows and rows of peaches, tomatoes, corn, etc.

We wandered the market for a bit and then headed home but not before Judy introduced me to the best coffee drink ever at Crema. Serious hipster baristas mixed us coffee sodas of iced, carbonated coffee, simple syrup, and orange zest. Sounds fine but tastes divine!!!! The coffee at Crema was absolutely amazing hot and iced, I bought some to bring home. Like coal to Newcastle...

We enjoyed a little rest, relaxation, and rosé on our Airbnb's front porch before getting ready to head out for the night.

Pinewood Social, everyday should start and end here! Pinewood is a huge restaurant, coffee shop, bar, bowling ally, outdoor game space, taco truck in the yard, plunge pool, you name- they are it- kind of place. Over the course of our days we had coffee, brunch, and on this night, cocktails here. Oh, and a special behind the scenes tour by Josh who is heading up all that awesomeness!

Our next stop was Rolf & Daughters, a great restaurant which is housed in a cool old industrial looking brick building. R.A.D has a very respectable cocktail menu also, but we were focused on the excellent seasonal small plates. And since Judy knew a few folks in the kitchen, and we just happened to bring them a little liquid refreshment, we got to try all the desserts as well.

We found our way to The Patterson House after dinner for nightcaps. You enter and check in with the host and if there is room in the speakeasy style jewel-box they will seat you. It's dim and cozy and there are bartenders wearing vests. If the drinks weren't so damned awesome it would be easy to judge, but instead we just enjoyed our cocktails in the hipster zen-den. Besides cocktails, my brother and I decided to do a little drinking from their impressive aged whiskey list.

Day one in Nashville was pretty damned good, so Judy and I had to really get day two off with a bang in order for it to compete. Excellent lattes made by uber cool kids at Ugly Mugs in East Nashville, followed by ice cream for breakfast at Jeni's Splendid (Bangkok Peanut!).

Thoroughly fortified by caffeine and sugar we drove out to meet my brother for lunch at Jim N' Nicks BBQ. Hello meat!

Next up we headed to the Belle Mead area, a lovely neighborhood filled with jaw-dropping mansions. Turns out that Nashville is the healthcare capitol of the states and the homeowners here earn considerably more than most. Some mansions have well known personalities who own them, like Al Gore, and others are owned by Bob Falk, local healthcare entrepreneur and CEO of Healthcare Corp. of Tennessee.
We had a nice little drive by of these giants on the way to Cheekwood Botanical Gardens, where we went to see Andy Warhol's Flowers exhibit. The grounds at the gardens are absolutely lovely and an additional exhibit of Big Bugs was great too.
That evening we started with cocktails back at The Patterson House before having an absolutely spectacular meal at The Catbird Seat. Sometimes when you've had a place in your head for a while the actual experience can be a let down, but that was not the case with Chef Trevor Moran, who took over the helm in January after being the sous chef at the much lauded Noma.

As we sat around the 21-seat open kitchen, it reminded me of the dining experience at Momofuko Shoto in Toronto. Each member of the team was in charge of executing and delivering a different dish of the the 12-course line up. We were presented with things like Beer Cheese, made with raclette and PBR, and a salad that resembled more of a bouquet.

Both Judy and I felt the only clunker was the potato dish which is purposely cooked a little less than what most of us are use to. We also agreed that the potato cake dessert, which was served in a brown bag and was a mash up of a choux pastry, marzipan, chocolate sprinkles, and cream, was fantastic.

And as we were still there when the staff finished the evening, we were invited to partake in a Fernet shot with everyone.
So I'd say day two in Nashville held its own!

On my final full day we started with a lovely brunch back at Pinewood Social. They have this great art installation of funny paint cans that they use to create a full wall mural in the bowling ally and we were there to see them change it out. We couldn't tell what it was until we stood all the way on the other side of the room... in a nod to their outdoor pools opening.

We walked off our waffles and fried chicken by strolling around Lower Broadway and the Downtown area. There's quite a bit to see here, live music venues, the convention center, the library, museum, the historic Hermitage Hotel, and the very cool Union Square Hotel which was the old train station and still has a large schedule board over the front desk.

We invited my brother and our Airbnb host for drinks on the front porch that evening before heading to dinner at City House. On Sundays they have a different menu called Sunday Supper, shared plates and all superb!

Judy decided to head home after dinner while Mark and I headed back to The District for a night of music. We started in Printer's Ally at Bourbon Street Blues where the Stacy Mitchhart band was playing, an excellent band! We then headed down to Lower Broadway to Robert's Western World where we had a hell of a good time listening to honky tonk.
We continued bar crawling and checking out bands at Tootsies, The Wheel, and Second Fiddle. To be fair I was drinking whiskey throughout the entire bar crawl so I don't actually remember Second Fiddle, but I have this photo so I know it's true.
It was such a fantastic time hanging out with my brother, listening to music, drinking whiskey, and people watching. Absolutely a great last night in Nashville!!

And although Judy and I originally had plans to go have meat and three the next day, I opted to sleep off all that whiskey until it was time to head to the airport. Luckily the BBQ join at the airport had that option on their menu!

Nashville photos here y'all!

Saturday, October 25, 2014


Palm Springs in the late winter may become an annual thing. Warm weather, fun friends, a pool, Mexican markets, a desert hike...all the things you need when Seattle is cold and dreary.

This past March our group booked a house for five days, last year they stayed for over a week so I was only able to meet them for part of the stay. We had early flights into Ontario, which made for an hour and 30 minute drive to PS, but the morning did allow for some beautiful Seattle photos from the sky.

After the obligatory Costco and Jensen's grocery runs we had a really good lunch on the patio at Jiao. I don't think any of us expected to find decent Vietnamese style food in the desert but we did, and it was, and the cocktails were good too!

Our house, called Sunstruck, was a big 5 bedroom home with pool and hot tub in the South Palm Springs area. After our 3pm check in it was cocktail and relaxation time!
On our first morning some of us went to the Mexican market. There is nothing like a store that sells giant chicharrones, house-made queso fresco, religious candles, and five different types of fresh chorizo. We could have stayed all day!

Unlike last year, we hadn't bought tickets for the tennis matches this time. And we didn't even do a dinner out on the town. Days were spent lounging in the pool, mixing up margaritas, grilling, and eating. My kind of perfectness. A couple of us headed back to Palm Canyon for short desert hike, this time we took one of the Andreas Canyon trails which has some really stunning rock formations.
On one of the last nights most of us decided to take the Aeriel Tramway up to the top of Chino Canyon. This is billed as the largest rotating tramcar in the world. It is a heart-stopping ride up the cliffs, with absolutely incredible views at the top. We were lucky enough to be there for sunset and and then a full moon. I'd highly recommend a trip up along with a cocktail or two at the top! A word to the wise, take a jacket; there was still some snow up there even though it was 90+F in the valley!

On a wet and windy day like today, I'm glad we've already booked our trip for March 2015. This time we'll fly in and out of Palm Springs Airport, which is so great as it gives us just that much more time for the pool. Any suggestions on what to see or do this time around?

Palm Springs photos

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Part Two

After a great morning in horse country we got back on the Bourbon Trail!

Day 2:

Up next, Buffalo Trace in Lee's Town, Frankfort KY. I didn't realize but Buffalo Trace has only been named that since 1999 after being purchased by the Sazerac Company in 1992. Both Peychaud's and Reagan's bitters are made on-site today. The distillery has a long history as one of the oldest distilleries in the state, dating from the early 1800's, and a long roster of past owners whose names now grace many of the bottles; Blanton, E.H. Taylor, George T. Stagg, & Elmer T. Lee.
The distillery is it's own little brick and stone town, many of the original buildings are still used, with pipes of whiskey traversing the grounds.

The distillery, back then it was Schenley, was also one of only six allowed to continue during prohibition, making "prescription" whiskey. We had the good fortune of having Bob as our guide, who is also a state folklorist, as he had some really interesting information about the history of the company.

We chose the Trace Tour, a complimentary tour that starts every hour on the hour. Bob walked us past a few of the historic buildings as he shared information, we watched a short and interesting film, and then we were guided into one of the warehouses. This particular warehouse was aging W.L. Weller, which we learned can end up as the illustrious Pappy Van Winkle if the master distiller determines it to be special enough.

From there we made our way to Blanton's Bottling Hall. The day we visited they were bottling E.H. Taylor and Blanton's, on two separate belts, all completely by hand. It was really fantastic to watch, and everyone on the crew was super friendly and happy to answer questions and chat. Every single bottle is filled, sealed, labeled, and packaged entirely by hand.
The guy putting the horse and rider corks in each bottle of Blanton's even went out of his way to find and give Elisabeth the first in the series, as the gift shop was out of them and E wanted one to complete her collection.

We finished up with a tasting and then spent a bit more time wandering the grounds on our own, they are really beautiful.

On the way home we stopped in at Liquor Barn, there are a few but we went to the one in Hamburg Pavillion. Now this retail emporium isn't actually on the Bourbon Trail, but it should be!

We had a great tasting of two of the Willett bourbons I'd wanted to sample, as well as these two rare Orphan Barrel bourbons. These are from defunct distilleries and are extremely limited in quantity so it was a good chance to try them. We were also told they've got their hands on a couple of bottles of Pappy which should be released in the next few weeks.

That night we conducted our own tasting thanks to the generosity of Jen's dads awesome liquor cabinet. And also he was asleep...

Day 3:

We fueled up for our last day of tasting by having ginormous and delicious Hot Brown's at Ramsey's Diner. A Hot Brown brunch is definitely the way to go!

Then we made our Woodford Reserve in Versailles, KY (pronounced completely different than you would in France!). Again the tours start on the hour every hour, but even on a rainy Tuesday afternoon we had to wait a full hour for the next available opening. Luckily they have a nice gift shop, a little cafe, and a comfortable lounge area complete with pretty fireplace.
When our Bourbon Discovery tour started we were taken to check out the massive vats of mash first. Every distillery, even though they are all making up the same end product, has such different methods and esthetics, it's really interesting. Here we saw mash in varying stages of fermentation and even got a peek at the new tanks they are building.

We then entered the distillation room where three absolutely gorgeous copper pot stills hold center stage.
Those beauties were worth the price of the $10 admission alone. We also surprisingly learned that not all Woodford bourbon is actually distilled here, that some comes from their location near Louisville. But I don't know how well informed our guide was, she was the least favorite of ours at all the distilleries and didn't seem to have a lot of in-depth knowledge.

Woodford has a unique barrel track which takes the barrels from the filling room and rolls them along to the warehouse. We followed their path to warehouse C, originally built back in 1890.
Here we entered the warehouse, which is directly connected to the bottling house, and learned a bit about how they store and age their whiskeys. And thanks to Jen's moms keen eye, we also learned they'll be releasing a rye next year!
After following the rolling barrels into the bottling room and seeing where they dump the bourbon, fill and box up the bottles, we returned to the main house and its tasting room. It's a new facility and decked out all in wood and copper. We tasted the Woodford Reserve and the Double Oaked side by side and enjoyed a bourbon ball before heading out to our last stop of the day.

With a plane to catch in just over 2 hours we had no time for a tour but we hit the gift shop at Four Roses to peruse what they might only be selling at the distillery.
 We found their Private Selection series, three different recipes to choose from, and bought a couple to bring home. The grounds here are very different from the others in that there is a Spanish feeling, I'd love to come back and tour around.

But for this time I'd say that hitting six distilleries over three days was a mighty fine effort! Until next time Kentucky!
All Kentucky photos here

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