Thursday, April 8, 2021

Intro to Normandy; Honfleur

Trip date: December 2019

After a lovely holiday at Forest and Thibault's country house in the Le Perche area, the three of us loaded up their car and headed almost due north to the town of Rouen, about a 1 ½ hour drive. Just in time for lunch!

Le 6è Sens, or The Sixth Sense, is a very modern restaurant located in the 100+ year old vaulted area of an unfinished hall. It's a very interesting ambiance! The menu is very "gastronomique" and the dishes are absolutely gorgeous. We were served a selection of amuse bouche, then a starter, main, and a wonderful cheese plate. Normandy is known for Camembert, Livarot, and Pont l'Evêque so it was great to have all three on my plate!

After this lovely lunch we set off to explore the town for a bit. Rouen is the capital of Normandy and there certainly is a lot of history here. There are also a lot of churches, the city's nickname is "city of a hundred steeples", and we were on our way to visit the famous cathedral which has one of the tallest steeples in the world!

To be honest I was so taken with the incredible detail on the outside that I really didn't focus on the steeple, but it is over 400 feet tall! The intricate sculptures that adorn the facade were overwhelming. The inside of this grand cathedral was no slouch either!

I was so happy that we started our tour of Normandy here! This church has been here since 1880 and has survived multiple wars. It was pretty awe inspiring standing inside.

Outside, Rouen's Christmas market was still going on so we took a quick glance at the various stalls before making our way back to the car. The car park was right next to the Church of Joan of Arc. Next to the church is a small garden called Le Bouchet which is the exact spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. That was a pretty big thing to just happen upon next to the car park!
From here we drove 1 hour west to our first Calvados distillery- Christian Drouin. There are over 200 varieties of apples grown to create cider and Calvados in Normandy and distillation of the fruit has been going on in this northern region since the 1600s! I'm a huge brandy fan so I was very excited to be in the AOC of Calvados!

We had called ahead to let them know we would be arriving as we were cutting it pretty close to their closing time. This family estate has been making Calvados since 1960 and is a very well regarded and recognized small producer. Not to mention how cute the half timbered farm houses are! 
We had a tour of the barn where the cider apples are pressed and distilled, and then the barrel house where the spirits were aged. Lots of information on the process, agriculture of the area, styles of Calvados, etc. 

And our course there was a tasting back in the office! It was really fun for me to taste from the Blanche (very young, 2 years of age), through the Pays d'Auge (this is the AOC in the eastern part of Normandy) Reserve, VSOP, XO, and Hors d'Age (aged for 15+ years). Christian Drouin also makes a gin that we tasted which was interesting.

I bought myself a lovely XO (6+ year), as well as a VSOP for Forest and I to drink over the next couple of weeks. We also picked up a bottle of Pomme du Normandie which is very popular aperitif in the region (an aged blend of cider and calvados)  and a lovely 2015 sparkling brut cider. 

You can listen to Forest's podcast interview with a representative from the Christian Drouin distillery here, there's a lot of great information!

20 minutes north is Honfleur, our final destination for the day. We were excited to unpack and settle in for our 3-night stay in our lovely 2-floor apartment

Honfleur is such an charming and picturesque city, with most of the old town hugging the small harbor, it was a perfect first stop in Normandy. On our first night out we immersed ourselves completely, starting with a very fun dinner at Le Bistro du Port. The large terrace was enclosed to protect against the winter chill and it was filled with diners happily eating and drinking. 

I ordered an awesome seafood tower that was filled with crab, langoustines, bulots (whelks), bigorneaux (sea snails), crevettes roses & grises (red & grey shrimp), amandes (cockles) and huîtres creuses du Cotentin (local oysters).  And after all that delicious food I had the ultimate dessert, my first Trou normand; apple sorbet floating in a coupe of Calvados. YUM!

After dinner we walked around the picture perfect harbor and stopped in at a random bar for a nightcap Calvados.

The entire next day was spent enjoying Honfleur. It was just a short, and very pretty walk, from our apartment to Saint-Catherine's Church. This massive wooden structure was built in the mid 1400's, its architecture unlike anything I've seen before.
As with most churches during the holidays, this one had a pretty large and interesting nativity scene filled with figurines of people and animals. Some clever person also put a funny ceramic cat in it which made me laugh!

We could not have asked for a nicer winter day. The sun was shining and the temperature was mild. Honfleur Christmas market was still going on with kiosks set up around the harbor. I grabbed a cup of hot Normandy cider and wandered the stalls.
This market had an amazing selection of food vendors! Oysters, scallops, mussels, and lobster were brought in from the fishing boats just on the other side of the pier and shucked, grilled, or sauted to your liking. There was an organic farmer selling incredibly delicious squash soups and another vender selling traditional galettes. I was obviously in heaven!

We grabbed a table in the sun and had a wonderful lunch of Coquilles St Jacque, mussels steamed in wine and garlic, fish soup, and inexpensive white wine. Pure vacation bliss right there!

We continued our exploration of Honfleur, walking through the cobbled streets and quaint neighborhoods, checking out the houses, some half timbered and others with slate-covered facades, all so pretty in the ever changing light. It's no wonder that the Impressionist artists like Boudin, Monet, and Sisley spent so much time painting here. 

We made our way to Chez DD wine bar and settled in with a lovely bottle of Burgundy and a great charcuterie plate. I'm not sure where we heard about this place but it was a great find and I'd happily stop here again.

That night we had reservations at Michelin 2-star SaQuaNa. It's quite a sensory change to walk in from the medieval feel if the old town and into the stark modernism of the restaurant. The menu here focuses on taking traditional and local dishes and giving them an international and modern twist. 
The plating of everything was exceptionally beautiful, like this scallop with cabbage, fried chickpeas, and guacamole. And the service was very good. I don't know what it was for sure but I just thought it was all good, but not great. We did end the night with a lovely 1994 Calvados from Christian Drouhin, it was certainly great! 

The next night we had dinner at La Cidrerie which serves traditional galettes (savory crepes made with buckwheat flour) and cider that you drink from bowls. I would absolutely recommend this casual stop!

Honfleur's market sets up on Wednesday and Saturday mornings right in the shadow of the church. It was also set up the day we left as it was New Years Eve. Besides the gorgeous frisee, leeks, and potatoes there was a vender selling fresh oysters, a mobile fish market, and a wine merchant. 
I just loved, loved, loved Honfleur! If you are thinking of a trip to Normandy I would absolutely stay here for a day or three. Not only is it charming and beautiful but it's also a great home base for daytripping to Trouville, Deauville, and Le Havre. More on that to come.

All photos of Honfleur and surrounding here

**As I visited all of these places before the COVID-19 pandemic, please double check on opening hours. And fingers crossed these businesses all stay in business!**

Other post from this trip:

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Holidays in Le Perche, France

Trip date: December 2019 

I was off to spend the holidays in Le Perche, a region just west of Paris, bordering The Loire to the south and Normandy to the north. Friends Forest and Thibault had just recently bought a house in the area, which is close enough to Paris that it is becoming quite the place to buy. It was my first visit out there and I was excited!

I usually like to fly direct to Paris from Seattle but Alaska Air had recently dropped Delta as a mileage partner so Icelandair was my best choice. I booked in Saga Class, which was both comfortable and also better for boarding with a huge Longchamp tote filled with wrapped Christmas gifts. Oops! 

There was no one next to me on either the Seattle to Reykjavik or Reykjavik to Paris legs; there were actually only four other passengers in Saga on the flight to Paris! 

France is known for a lot of things and strikes of all kinds are absolutely at the top of the list. On Dec 5, 2019 France had a transportation strike that ended up being the longest in over 50 years. It caused a lot of stress leading up to my trip. I would be flying into CdG but then I needed to take the train out to the country house, but the trains weren't running. The house is about 2 hours from the airport so having someone drive 4 hours round trip was a pain. Did I mention it was Christmas Eve and Thibault's entire family was there??

Thibault's brother knew of a service called BlaBla Car and for €11 booked a complete stranger to pick me up in his van, joining another passenger. Driving through Paris we made various stops picking up 5 more people. We had all paid in advance and would be dropped off at different towns along the way. It was quite the 2 hour experience with me just off of 9+ hours of flying, jetlagged, and no one else speaking English. Finally I was dropped off outside of Chartres where Forest was waiting to pick me up. She had quite a laugh as multiple random people piled out in order to let me climb out of the back seat. BlaBla was a great option but it was no Saga Class! 

The area of Le Perche is known for its farmland and forests. The hamlet of Le Mesnil-Thomas where my friend's house is located has a population of only about 300. The mayor lives just down the street! The closest town for bread, groceries, banks, etc is Senoches, luckily just about 10 minutes away. 

It was a truly enjoyable and traditional French Christmas celebration with their family who were visiting from London, The Hague, and Beaujolais. For two days we feasted on foie gras, oysters, smoked salmon, escargot, capon, and of course lots and lots and lots of wine and cheese!

The day before the family left we all piled into two cars and drove to Chartres for the day. The old town area of this historic city is incredibly pretty, especially with all the Christmas decorations. We started off with a lovely prix fixe lunch at Les Feuillantines (where I had to have more foie gras) before wandering the picturesque cobblestone streets lined with half timbered buildings.
The Christmas market was already closed for the season (surprising as most stay open until New Years) but we were mainly interested in the famous cathedral which has a light show on its exterior every evening of the year from dusk until 1am. It wasn't quite dusk yet so we spent some time exploring the inside of the 800+ year old cathedral.
There is a lot to see inside! So many stained glass windows, so many sculptures. The choir wall is getting a good cleaning and it was amazing to see the difference side by side.
This cathedral is also famous for its labyrinth on the stone floor. As there had been services the evening before and the chairs were still set up we couldn't get the full effect but I don't think I've ever seen one of these in a church before!

The light show on the exterior was wonderful! I highly recommend this if you happen to be in Chartres!

The next day Forest and I drove to Senoches to shop at the market which happens every Friday. It's small, just like the town, but there was a good selection of shellfish, meat, veggies, cheese, and wine. 

I haven't spent too much time in rural France (outside of vineyards) before but I'm a sucker for a small town so this was all super to me. We were heading off on a road trip to explore Normandy for the next 9 days but I'd now had a little taste of Le Perche and was looking forward to seeing more when we returned!

All photos of Le Perche and Chartres here

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Pandemic Change of View; Port Orchard, WA

Trip date: February 2021

I've worked from home for almost 13 years now, so that part of the pandemic shut down has not affected me. However, usually I leave my home office after work and go meet up with friends for dinner, drinks, travel. That has definitely been affected and I miss it as so many others do.

I've found that even just renting a place for a couple of days, getting to set my eyes on new sights, and explore someone else's neighborhood can be restorative. So when my friend Gail showed me this great Port Orchard Airbnb she had seen on Facebook Marketplace I suggested we do a midweek work-from-somewhere-else.

Port Orchard is located on the Kitsap Peninsula, you can get there by ferry or you can drive down around Tacoma and up. 

We caught the Fauntleroy ferry in West Seattle bound for Southworth. As it isn't high season we didn't worry about making reservations like we might in the summer months. The ferry makes a short stop on Vashon to offload/onload cars, and then we arrived in Southworth after about a total 30 minute crossing. As encouraged by the ferry, we stayed in our car during the trip.

It was just a quick 15 minute drive to the Heron Haus from Southworth. The rental has very easy self check-in so there was no need to interact with anyone. It's a beautiful and charming cabin with amazing views onto Puget Sound. 

The main floor is open plan with a large kitchen/great room/window nook area. There's a bedroom on the main and one upstairs, both have views of the water. A large bathroom has both a huge shower and a lovely footed tub which also has great views. The entire place is just bathed in light. 
There's a deck the length of the entire house off the back with both a gas fire pit and off to the side, a cool oyster shell pit that burns wood. The front yard of the house also has a detached studio that can sleep two, double as an office, both or either. Truly a great property.

We had grocery shopped before leaving home and had a menu set for the next few days. I had made a batch of my mac-n-cheese so all it had to do was go in the oven. We located to the nook with the big picture windows for happy hour and took in the view as the skies went from blue, to black, and then to double rainbow! Not bad!

I set up to work in the studio the next day which was really great for a change of view! Unfortunately the wifi kept dropping, even with an extender in the unit, so I went back to the house to take my calls. But for working on spreadsheets and documents I just used my phone as a hotspot. 

Not far from the house is Manchester State Park which has good trails that take you along the waterfront and also cut through the forest. We did an easy 3 mile loop hike here, passing some of the old buildings and remains of the defense station that the park was once used for, including a torpedo warehouse now picnic area!

Along the waterfront we could hear the sea lions discussing their plans for dinner. Mount Rainier looked on from a distance and the skies were a lovely late winter blue. As the trail led us into the forest we found a set of interpretives plaques that educated us on the various trees in the area. 
A Discover Pass is required to park in the park, you can buy one in advance or pay onsite. 

That evening we lit up the gas fire pit and enjoyed happy hour outside. There was quite a bit of wildlife around, sea lions swimming close to shore and so many sea birds! It was cold but it was pretty!

We spent a total of 3 nights at the Heron Haus and absolutely loved the space and the location. As we only ventured into Port Angeles for a quick drive through I can't speak to the restaurants or shops here or if they are currently open. It looked cute though!

It was so nice to have a little change of view for a few days, and what a view it was! One morning I was sitting here with my book and coffee and watched 2 young eagles mock fight and their mother swoop in and break them up! 

Even though Port Orchard is on "main land", the waterfront community feels like an island. And who doesn't love an island retreat? I'm planning on visiting this Airbnb again!

All Port Orchard photos here

Sunday, March 14, 2021

24 Hours in Santa Monica, CA

Trip date: February 2020

A friend was going to spend a couple of days in Santa Monica after attending a conference in Southern California and invited me down for the weekend. The flights into LAX were ridiculously expensive but I had a lot of miles on my Chase Sapphire Reserve card so used those for a Premium Class seat on Alaska Air and still earned miles towards Elite Status! I got to the airport with plenty of time and had a breakfast mimosa in the Priority Pass Lounge.

There was a new area for Lyft/Uber at LAX when I arrived, you basically were sent a code by the app and then matched it up with the car/driver. It was easy and quick and soon I was on my way to the Gateway Hotel. This is a good standard hotel if you want to stay in Santa Monica proper. It's about a 2-mile walk to the beach from here but was pretty central for us getting around via Uber. 

My friend wanted to check out the Petersen Auto Museum so off we went to the Mid-Wilshire area of LA. The outside of the museum is really interesting with ribbons of steel wrapping around the bright red building. 

We started with a late lunch at their restaurant Drago which is California inspired Italian cuisine. Salads, fried calamari, some wine. It was tasty, easy and the service was great.

Now I'm not a huge car fan but I love design and history so I found the museum to be really interesting! I mean how can someone not love looking at this Bugatti? 

We spent about 2 hours exploring the different rooms and exhibits. There is history of the automobile, a room of cars used in movies and TV shows, futuristic cars, cars from the past, etc.

There was an exhibit of Metallica singer James Hetfield's custom car collection which were both odd and cool!

It was just about time for a cocktail so we left the museum and headed towards Santa Monica Pier for drinks at The Lobster. This is a perfect spot to sip on some well made margaritas and watch the gorgeous sunset.

Dinner that evening was at the absolutely wonderful Pasjoli. I'd go to Santa Monica for this restaurant alone! The restaurant's exposed brick walls, marble tabletops, and open kitchen were relaxing and casually elegant.
Everything we ordered was delicious! We started with a round of cocktails, followed by beautiful scallops that were blanketed in a ridiculous amount of caviar. My deconstructed cassoulet was perfect and we shared a truly decadent rice pudding for dessert. 

The restaurant is known for their duck press which after they roast a whole duck for two, and use breasts, legs, and crackling skin in a series of dishes, they press the entire duck carcass and create a heady sauce. This requires advance pre order which I will absolutely do if I ever get here again!

The next morning we headed to the Venice Beach area and queued up at EggSlut for their uber popular breakfast sandwich. I've had it once before, in Las Vegas when a friend brought me one by the pool, but this came right off the griddle and was perfect!

Our waiter the night before had suggested Menotti's for coffee. Not only is the coffee excellent but there is a secret menu if you can find it. A good recommendation!

We spent the rest of the day walking from Venice Beach to the Santa Monica Pier. It was a gorgeous sunny day and we needed to walk off that EggSlut!

I might have been to the pier when I was quite young (I was born in LA) but I don't remember. We didn't go on any rides but it was fun to wander around the amusement park, see where Route 66 famously ends, and watch all the beachgoers.

We had checked out of the hotel and left our bags earlier, so it was easy to just stop into the lobby, pick them up, and head to LAX which is just about 20 minutes away. 

Quick but fun weekend and also my last flight as the global COVID-19 pandemic closed everything down just weeks after returning home. I'm looking forward to jetting off at a moments notice again one day!

All photos from Santa Monica here

**As I visited all of these places before the COVID-19 pandemic, please double check on opening hours. And fingers crossed these businesses all stay in business!**

Intro to Normandy; Honfleur

Trip date: December 2019 After a lovely holiday at Forest and Thibault's country house in the Le Perche area, the three of us loaded up ...

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