Friday, July 28, 2017

Maui Girl's Trip

Trip date: March 2017

I don't know about you but when one of my friends says "hey, I got this great deal for 5-nights at the Westin Kaanapali Resort, want to join?" chances are slim to none that I'm going to say no! Especially when I've taken advantage of that same deal in Maui and Kauai and know the resort is wonderful!

I cashed in some miles for a First Class ticket on Alaska Air and had an easy 6 1/2 hour non-stop flight to the Valley Island. Although I did almost miss the flight as I had my earbuds in while standing outside the gate and was thinking that they were late in boarding; turns out they boarded right before I walked up and they were ready to close the gate when I finally asked the agent what the hold up was. Dumb!

Normally the flight is a bit shorter but we had 1180 mph headwinds and a fair amount of turbulence! Thank god for free Mai Tais!

Judy was waiting for me at the airport in our complimentary rental car and we made the 1-hour drive to the Westin Resort. We checked into our room on the 2nd floor in Building 4 which had a nice lanai but no view. More importantly, we made it down to the bar just in time for Happy Hour Mai Tais which we enjoyed by the outdoor firepit. It was an early night for both of us after long flights (Judy had flown all day from North Carolina!)

Judy and I have very different schedules, so while she was up before dawn each day, I woke up around 8, went for a beach walk/run, and then settled into breakfast at the Westin. As with the resort in Kauai, they have the program that if you don't want daily housekeeping you can have one free buffet breakfast each day. She took the buffet while I ordered something different off the menu daily.

Kaanapali Beach has a nice little beach front walk that follows the shore and winds through some of the other resorts. The first morning Judy joined me & we followed the trail towards the east for about 2-miles round trip. It was absolutely beautiful out and a perfect temperature! When we finished I had this delicious breakfast of fried egg, spam, and fried rice. With a mimosa of course!

After I did a bit of work back in the room, we headed out to lunch at Star Noodle. We'd both been before but it is delicious so we were happy to go back. We had fried wontons, chicken wings, and the Vietnamese crepe which were all good, but that crepe is amazing!

Judy then drove us to the adorable town of Makawao, which I had never been to before. It didn't take long to walk up and down the main street with its old wooden buildings. We popped into a few shops, including Maui Antiques which is owned by the brother in law of my neighborhood coffee shop, and browsed the little farmer's market.

It's a sweet little town to stop in if you're driving around this part of the island. Very artsy and interestingly located on the mid-slopes of Maui’s Haleakala volcano.

From here we continued on to the North Shore, hoping to score a seat at the bar at Mama's Fish House but unfortunately they were packed full. We settled for some amazing views of the waves, rocks, and surfers.

Back to Kaanapali we rolled up to the super old-school Kaanapali Beach Hotel and got seats at their outdoor tiki bar. This place is amazing in a John Ritter kind-of-way!

It was Happy Hour but the special is only on the drink of the day which was something like a tequila sunrise. We were there for tiki drinks! Two Tropical Itches were delivered to us by the man himself, Dale, complete with actual back scratchers. And a lot of dark rum! This place was a hoot!

Judy decided to stay at the resort that night while I took the handy shuttle into Lahaina. I thought I might have dinner at Fleetwood's which a friend had recommended but as soon as I sat at the bar and ordered a drink, the noise and the ambiance completely turned me off. I felt like I was in a southern California strip mall. I basically was. So I walked down to my old stand by, Kimo's. This place is practically in my family history.

Dinner at the bar, which is open-air, sounds of the surf hitting the rocks, live local music, and fresh catch in a butter caper sauce. Delish! I took an Uber home after as I had just missed the shuttle and didn't feel like waiting around for the next.

The next morning Judy joined me again and we walked the opposite direction on the beach path. After breakfast and a bit of work for me, we met back up at our beach chairs and umbrella that we rented for the day at the low price of $40. The entire day was spent soaking up the sun, sipping on rose, swimming in the warm water, spotting a turtle close to shore and a lot of whales farther out!

That evening I made us rum old fashions with pineapple garnish served with Maui potato chips for aperos. Cuz we are fancy like that!

We grabbed the hotel shuttle to Whaler's Village and had drinks and dinner at the Hula Grill. The thing you are going for here is the beach-side atmosphere, of which there is plenty! Our server was also really great and as they are owned by the same group as Kimo's, he let me order the butter caper sauce on my fish even though that isn't on their menu.

Saturday I took my run/walk to the beach where I had to jump over logs and avoid the tide coming in. It was such a gorgeous morning! After our Mimosa happy hour breakfast ($5 until 11 am!), Judy and I checked out the pool farther from our building. It's all black tile and felt a bit colder. I wasn't a fan even though the pool closer to us had a kid-attracting water slide in it.

It was time for lunch so we decided to get sandwiches and pie at Leoda's which is just delicious! On our way back we stopped at the Jodo Mission in Lahaina and walked around, checking out the Big Buddha (one of the largest outside of Asia) as well as the strange cemetery in the sand.

That night we chilled out at the resort: Happy Hour Mai Tais, the lighting of the tiki torches, another glorious sunset, and a pretty good dinner at the hotel.

Sunday morning's walk was quite special as there was a 400 lb Monk seal sleeping on the beach! Judy had seen it when she was up before dawn and it was still there when I went out at the more respectable 8am.

The Hawaiin Monk seal is one of the most endangered species in the world, only 1100 or so left. They are frequently caught up in fishing debris and drown, they were also hunted to the brink of extinction in prior years. Luckily this guy had a wonderful volunteer who roped off the area for him, allowing him to rest undisturbed, while she informed the onlookers about their plight.

Monk seals are especially rare in Maui as there are only about 150 of them around the main islands. It was fantastic that we both got to see this one and a wonderful start to our last full day!

We did a rinse and repeat day at the beach and I spotted even more whales than I had the other day!

That night we went to Sansei Sushi in Kapalua, which strangely has a location here in Seattle! It was good, not great.

Last day. One last beach walk/run.

One last Mimosa Happy Hour breakfast with fried rice.

One last (breaching!) whale spotting from my $50/ 1 hour Uber.

One last Mai Tai at the airport.

One last view of Maui.

All Maui photos are here.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Northern Spain Wrap Up: Madrid

Trip date: November 2015

Northern Spain Trip Day 10

The four-hour drive from Lograño to Madrid was pleasantly uneventful. We made a quick stop about 1/2 way at a highway rest stop; in Europe these have restaurants, shops, gas, etc. 

Our driver Antonio calculated that we had driven 3000 kilometers/ 1864 miles over the course of the 10-day trip! He was really the best!

We checked into the NH Madrid Paseo Prado which is in an excellent location but needs to update their rooms. Judy and my room was large with a sunken living room and shag carpet, and black marble bathroom! Chica-bow!

We loaded in our van for one last ride as Antonio dropped us off at Botin for lunch and we said our goodbyes to him. 

Botin is known as one of the oldest continuously running restaurants in the world (and of course Hemingway ate there). They are also known for their suckling pig. This was my 3rd time eating at Botin, every time has been fun and the pig is always good. I had better wine at this meal however!

After lunch we walked through the main streets of Madrid, most of our group hadn't been before and they would only have this day. Judy and I were staying an extra night and had our own plans for the following days so we happily followed along. 

Gerry took us into Lhardy, which is a really traditional old-school restaurant. He showed us how in the front room you can just stop in for a little break, serve yourself from the collections of wine, port, sherry, etc. and also serve yourself some hot broth from the gorgeous silver urn. There's also a little shop with lots of delicious items to take home. I've gotta stop back in here on my next trip!

That evening, Judy and I went and had big delicious gintonics at the Hotel Urban before meeting the group. The service has gone down a bit since I was last here but the bartender still made us delicious and gorgeous drinks and treated us to a few little apero snacks.

We then met everyone for drinks and beautiful appetizers on the rooftop bar at the Palacio de Cibeles where the chef sat with us and chatted about food, drinks, and Madrid. It was a super fun and lively way to start the evening. And it is an absolutely beautiful building with great views.  

For our last dinner as a group we walked over to Casa Lucio for an old school dinner of jamon, boquerones, padron peppers, mushrooms with raw egg yolks, a Spanish style scampi, and an absolutely delicious rice pudding. And wine. And pacharan. As we do. 
The owner, Lucio Blázquez, was the star of his own show, greeting tables of regulars as well as those he had never met, making everyone feel as if they had all know each other for ages. It was a very fun last dinner. 

The next morning, Beth & John left to catch their flights home while Judy, George, Anne, Sheldon, Robin and I had a private tour of the Prado that Gerry arranged. It was so great to have such a passionate guide show us some of the highlights of this massive museum. 

Photos aren't allowed in the Prado so I can't point out all the sexy things going on in The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, or how time is taking its toll on a large equestrian painting and you can now see a shadow of where the horse's leg was originally painted, or the nightmare inducing effects of Goya's Satan Devouring His Child. So you'll just have to go and get a private guide yourself!

Now it was time for Judy and I to say goodbye to the others. We spent the rest of our afternoon lazily enjoying lunch and wine in Plaza Santa Ana, window shopping for capes, actually shopping for jamon at Enrique Tomas, and just generally wandering around. 

That evening we stopped into Le Venencia for sherry as the locals do. It's old school and inexpensive, and there are always a few characters bellied up to the bar to talk to. 

From here we made our way to Mercato San Miguel to have dinner by grazing the assortment of market stalls. The food we had didn't seem to be as high of quality as in the past but I was greeted by this mobile wine merchant so it wasn't a complete loss!

And don't get me wrong, we had some nice bites as well!
We decided that dessert was to be churros and chocolate at the very famous San Gines. Thankfully this place still rocks!
And we wrapped up our excellent day with gintonics at our hotel bar.

Day 11 for Judy and I, our own private tour if you will, started out with more chocolate and churros at Chocolat. I mean, why not? It was our last day!

And it was an absolutely gorgeous November day so we took advantage of the weather and walked all over Retiro Park. There were boaters, buskers, and even a beer in the sunshine for me. Such a great way to spend an afternoon!

For lunch Judy and I had reservations at Malacatin, recommended to me by one of my chef friends. This tavern dating from 1895 is known for their Cocido, or chickpea stew. 

We arrived and were seated in a big wooden booth, walls crowded with photos of matadors all around us. Then the stew, consisting of 14 individual items, started to arrive. Holy hell this meal was amazing! Luckily they warned us not to eat too much in the beginning!

From their website (English translations) here is what you get: Noodle Soup, Fatty Salt Pork for dipping, The Mercy of the Cabbage and Dried Ham Broth, Dried Ham Casserole, The Charm of the Castilian Chickpea, The Brave Hen Plucked to the Pot, The Serious Boiled Potato, The Spicy Chillies, The Juicy Pieces of Shank of Beef, The Gherkins in Vinegar, The Bizarre Chorizo of León, The Tasty Spring Onions, The Extreme Black Pudding of Extremadura, The Lack of Water from Lozoya. 
Hysterical! Delicious! I couldn't even get it all in my photo!

We then took the advice from another chef friend of mine and rolled to a hammam for a long soak, scrub, and massage. Ahhhhhhhh!

On our stroll the day before we had come across the Palace Hotel and their beautiful Rotunda Room. We decided to have a cocktail in the bar just off the room, the 1912 Museo Bar. Home to a collection of historical photos and curios from famous clients (Hemingway drank here! ha!) the bar feels very exclusive. We ordered gintonics for 25Euro each which came with no garnish! One and done!

Still pretty full from our epic lunch we decided to have a small bite at Taberna La Dolores in Plaza Jesus. This was an excellent neighborhood spot, we were the only foreigners, and we had house vermouth, jamon, matrimonials (cured and uncured anchovies), and chips. Perfect.

One last gintonic nightcap in our hotel bar, some sitting on the suitcase kind of packing, and the next morning we shared a 30-minute taxi to the airport for 30Euros. 

If you are interested in tours like this please take a look at my friend's Facebook Page for upcoming itineries. I guarantee they will always be delicious!

All Madrid photos here
Other posts on this trip:
Northern Spain Food & Wine Tour
Shellfish & Grapes in Galicia
On the Move in Galicia
Shooting Sidra in Asturias
Beef and Basque

Seafood All Around San Sebastian
One Night Only, Logroño!

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Iceland Stopover

Trip date: June 2017

5 years ago I took advantage of a great 4-night Reykjavik deal thru Icelandair but until now I hadn't done the stopover program that they always offer. So coming back from Stockholm (more on that here) I decided to break up the return trip home with 2 nights in Reykjavik.

I flew Economy Comfort class on the 3-hour trip, which gives you access to the Saga Lounge at the airport, complimentary drinks/snacks on board, and each middle seat is "Reserved for your comfort" (empty) with a little ½ table inserted giving a bit more space. Add to this the exit row I chose and I had quite a bit of room!

Once landed at KEF I boarded the Flybus which I had booked in advance online. It's a 45-min drive to Reykjavik and the bus has wifi and seat back chargers making it a comfortable way to go. It costs about $30 but I heard of someone taking a taxi which ran them $200!

A quick transfer to a smaller bus at the city's bus terminal and then I was dropped off right outside my hotel, the Icelandair Hotel Marina. When I was here last, the marina seemed very far away from everything and was very industrial. It's still industrial but seeing that the city has grown so much there are lots of restaurants, bars, cafes, tours, etc. now. In fact, Reykjavik's best cocktail bar, Slippbarinn, is in the hotel (no surprise that I chose it right?).

I checked in, dropped my bags in my very cute single room with a view of the harbor, and caught the last 30-minutes of happy hour in the bar.

It is very expensive to drink in Iceland as you may have heard. But let me give you a specific; a martini can go $29. So happy hour is a big thing. The waiter told me about the free app AppyHour which shows you the closest bars that are currently running happy hour. The bars seem to stagger them so you can make your own crawl out of it.

Not all happy hours are the same. At Slippbarinn they have a special menu of classic drinks, which was perfect for me; one Tommy Margarita for $12 please and thank you! Other places offer 2-for-1 or just beer or wine specials. The app generally has that information.

I then walked over to Matur og Drykkur for my dinner reservation. What a fantastic restaurant this it, I highly recommend. It is housed in an old salt fish factory; now a very cool, open kitchen concept, serving delicious modern Icelandic cuisine.

I started with a cocktail of Icelandic gin, crowberry, and thyme while looking over the menu which has both ala cart and set tasting menus (including a vegetarian option). I chose the Icelandic tasting menu with beverage pairings (cuz me!).
My first course was paired with a Brennevin shot (Icelandic aquavit) so I was immediately charmed. Everything was delicious but the stand out was the incredible soup of halibut, mussels, apples, and raisins. I thought the wine pairings were also quite good (they can also mix in beers) and the waiter even treated me to a tasting of crowberry and birch liquors on their own as well as an Icelandic Old Tom gin. As I ate I enjoyed watching the chef plate everything right in front of me.

M og D isn't cheap but it also wasn't gimmicky, the ingredients were local and awesome, and the service was fantastic. It is casual (cuz Iceland!) but it was nice; I loved it! I also loved walking home in the midnight sun!

One thing I noticed on this trip was the campaign against having whale on restaurant menus. There is even a sticker you can look for on doors that says "Meet Us Don't Eat Us" which signifies a restaurant choosing not to serve whale. Full disclosure, I have eaten both whale and puffin in Iceland in the past but I liked that the city is getting away from using this as a touristy thing and fully support it.

The next day was my one full day to play and I made the most of it! I got up, had a great smorgasbord buffet breakfast in the hotel and walked all of 2 minutes onto the pier to catch my Puffin Express Tour with Edling Tours. This boat goes out at 9am, 30 minutes before any other tours, and because it is a zodiac boat it can get much closer to the island than the regular boats. Cherry on top, there was just one other couple on my trip so the 3 of us had Captain Axel and bird watching expert Corrina to ourselves!

We were provided survival suites (which were nice and toasty), binoculars, and gloves (which I never needed). There were no other boats when we left the harbor for the island; it was quiet and beautiful on the water. Puffins are really small so even though we were close, you really needed the binoculars or a serious camera to see them. And they are super cute! It was hatching season so there were many protecting their nests, normally they hang out in the sea.

Yea, puffins! The tour was an hour and we cruised around the island a bit before heading in. I had booked this online the day before but on busy weekends you probably want to book more in advance. They also have an afternoon whale watch you can add to it.

Afterward, I went for a nice walk thru town and did some shopping, not on Languverin as most guidebooks would tell you but on Skolavoroustigur. Here you'll find a cool deli selling Icelandic cheeses, jams, etc, the Handknitting Association store which sells 80+% local crafts, some cool design shops, and a few souvenir stores; all in the shadow of the Hallgrimskirja (cathedral).
I went to Loki Cafe for lunch and chose the Iceland #2 plate which has smallish servings of smashed fish and smoked trout on house rye, bean salad, and mashed turnip. It was good but others had the soup which looked and smelled *really* good. If you go I'd get the later. All with a great view of the church.

That afternoon I had booked an Icelandic horse ride with Ishestar. After being picked up and taken to their stables, I was outfitted with a helmet, offered rain gear, and introduced to my horse.

We took our horses on a 1 ½ hour ride through some absolutely beautiful lava flow scenery; wildflowers perfuming the air and mountains rising in the background.

The only thing I didn't like about the ride was that you had to choose either a slow walk or a faster trot/tolt group which was for riders with at least 15 rides under their belt. As I have maybe 5 rides under mine I stuck with the slow. It would have been nice near the end to be given the option of trying the tolt or at least seeing a demonstration of it. So if you are keen to ride horses, you might want to inquire to your tour if this is something that is available. And for those of you who are considering horseback riding in Iceland and you don't know what tolt is... WTF? Go see the puffins! :)

After happy hour at my lovely Slippbarinn I walked to Pablo Discobar for a drink. It was still early so no true nightlife yet but the drinks were good and the 3-story Latin restaurant/bar was fun. It started absolutely dumping rain so my plans of a cocktail crawl were squashed as I had left my raincoat with hood back at the hotel. I made my way back to the waterfront by ducking under each building awning on my way to Kopar Restaurant.
Kopar is right on the water and has a really cool appetizer tasting menu for about $60. You get 6 app-sized courses and a glass of champagne. All were great, the rock crab soup being a major stand out (what is it with Iceland and their soups?) and the waiter was sweet and comped me an additional glass of white wine with my meal. I really liked this restaurant which was a recommendation from my friend Kel and thought the appetizer tasting menu was a great idea!

I stopped in my bar for a nightcap, or should I say brightcap?  The sun didn't set each day until midnight and rose at 3am, with hardly even dusk in between. This was such a bucket list thing for me to experience that I was super excited by it, and also happy to have blackout blinds in my room!

The next morning I chose the breakfast option at the cafe connected to the hotel, instead of the buffet (both were included in my room price thru Skyr, latte, avocado toast, cheese, fruit, croissant... delicious!

I took one last walk around town then down to the beautiful Harpa Concert Hall and along the water to the Sun Voyager sculpture.

There is so much construction going on I felt like I was back in Seattle! I was told there is a 5-star hotel under construction across from the Harpa and the area is a huge mess. Reykjavik is certainly going through some growing pains and I have to say that I missed the small simplicity that I experienced in the past.

That isn't to say I don't still love Iceland, but now you need to book your Blue Lagoon 2 months in advance (I couldn't get a reservation) and the Michelin starred Dill restaurant is booked 3+ months out. So it's more of a normal city which requires advance planning than what I experienced before.
I ended my trip the same way I started my first one 5-years prior; lobster soup at the Saegrefinn right on the wharf. The shack is much busier now and has built a covered outside patio, but the "menu" of an open refrigerated unit was still there offering various fresh catch skewers ready to be grilled, and the soup was still delicious. So not everything has changed.
After arriving at the airport again via Flybus, I flew Saga Comfort Class back to Seattle. My seat was upgraded to the same as Saga (1st) class but I had drinks and food off the cart (complimentary) instead of the "fancy" menu. All good!

Another wonderful trip to Iceland, next time I plan to take more time and get to other regions besides Reykjavik. If you're headed there, make your plans in advance, pack for all kinds of weather even in summer, and support the local economy. It's such an amazing part of the world!

All Iceland photos here.

Other posts from this trip:
The Longest Day
My Midsummer Dream
30,000 Islands & Counting

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