Saturday, December 18, 2010

Awesome trip to Benelux - Nailed it!

I read an article about how the preparation and anticipation for a trip brings you almost as much pleasure as the trip itself. Well, in this case I had a scant three weeks to get ready.
I busied myself ordering Lonely Planet Encounter guides for Belgium and Amsterdam. (I highly recommend the Encounter series: a bit of history, the main tourist attractions and just enough restaurants to feed you described in a pithy manner. Plus, they fit in your pocket.) I read The Undutchables (Did you know the Dutch are incredibly forthright?) and subscribed to newsfeeds from Belgium and the Netherlands (which consists a lot of how their soccer team is doing). I pre-bought tickets to the biggest museums which ended up saving us a lot of time at the Anne Frank Huis and money at the Rijksmuseum (1/2 price for ING bank card holders).

By time I got there I was ready with lists of things to do, beers to drink and sites to see. That said, I'm a pretty laid-back traveler, so if we end up having a two hour lunch because we're playing with the cute dog at the bar - totally fine. I did run out of time to see visit some breweries that were on my list and resistance museum, but I didn't have many regrets other than those. Plus, I got a lot of good sister time, which is rare these days when we live nine states away.

-Belgian beer Every beer was an epiphany! We sought out the best beer joints and delighted, drank everything that the bartender recommended it. Ah the trappists! Back home, sadly each bottle goes for $4-8, but at least I can relive a bit of the experience. Our biggest mind-f* was Cantillion, where they ferment the beer spontaneously from yeast in the air!

-Belgian food From the chocolate shops to fancy restaurants with fireplaces, to dog-filled pubs where no one spoke English. I enjoyed every morsel. One of my favorite meals was my last at Le Circus - where I chose beer from a 15 page menu, enjoyed a big chunk of vegetarian lasagna which watching a 1980 David Bowie concert.

-Brussels Christmas Market Brussels' Grand Place was recently voted the most beautiful square in Europe. Fill that with a holiday market and tree. Add in a lightshow on the palace every hour and what you get is really spectacular.

-Bikes in Amsterdam I subscribe to H.G. Wells thought that "Every time I see an adult on a bicycle , I no longer despair for the future of the human race." So I was in absolute heaven in Amsterdam. I could have sat for hours just watching all the Chic Cyclists. Instead Katie and I rented bikes and joined them.

-Boats in Amsterdam Our first night in Amsterdam, we oriented ourselves to the city on a cheap boat tour. At night the canals are lit beautifully. You also get a perfect view into the house boats that line the canals, decorated in perfect ikea style, and filled with families eating perfect dutch dinners. If there's anything I like better than bikes, it's water.

-Dancing I haven't had that great of a dancing high in America in a while. Our night out dancing with a live band in Brussels with Madame Mustache was fabulous.

-Amsterdam Brewery Tours Our first was Da Prael. Located in an old 17th century canal house, Da Prael is part brewery, part non-profit. It employs several dozen people with mental disabilities and teaches them skills. The two of us had our own tour guide, who was incredibly enthusiastic, if not confused as to how to English speaking girls found their brewery. We chatted with the brewers, tasted green beer out of the tanks and got to climb up ladders to look inside the brew kettles. Our second brewery, Brouwerik 'IJ wasn't nearly as tasty, but it was in a windmill and had a fun guide.

-Museums We spent almost no time in churches, but what trip to Europe is complete without some museums? Unfortunately the Rijksmuseum, which houses the Dutch masters, has been under construction, so the selection we saw was limited. Van Gough was excellent. But the best had to be the Musical Instruments Museum. It's housed in a gorgeous art-deco glass department store. When you enter, you're given wireless headphones and as you step in front of each instrument case, you hear the instruments. There's also a cafe on the top floor with reasonably priced gourmet food and gourmet views to match. (Check out the website to see views of the building.)

And of course, the Ann Frank House was an experience. It was moving and well-curated. At the end you could do an interactive video experience which would pose complex societal questions and ask you to vote. (Like is it okay to racial profile if the round-up actually found most of the people were illegal immigrants?)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Damn, Amsterdam!

Well, let's just say if you combine, bikes and water, you get my ideal city. This is perhaps one of the reasons I loved living in Miami so much. But I've found that even in colder weather, I enjoy the speed of a bike and the lapping of waves.

I've many pictures and more to elabotate on further, but for those of you reading at home, yes Amsterdam and Brussels are all that they're made out to be - and more.

In Brussels we partook in wonderful food and drink. We endulged in an amazing home-grown beer at every meal and at different 'Brown-Bars' every night. Every single one was spectacular. We toured a brewery that does not add yeast or sterilize it's equipment, but rather allows the yeast in the unique micro-fauna of the air to make their beer. The spiderwebs weren't for show - they were to catch the bugs flying about! We ate pralines and fabulous meals and walked through spendid old squares.

Amsterdam seemed to have more to say - the architecture is wonderful and all jives. With more canals than Venice, every other street is a view to more of their beautiful buildings. We've had good pancakes, and some beer. (The breweries here are colorful, but no where near as good as Belgium.) The highlight has been the easy-breasy riding of bikes around in well-marked lanes.

I always do remark that bike riding is the most efficient mode of transportation in Boston and here, the people have realized this en masse. I could spend days watching all the beautiful people on their beautiful bikes.

Or just being one of the beautiful people myself . . .

Friday, December 03, 2010

Yes, please!

What do you say when your mom offers to send you to Amsterdam to take care of your sister?

Yes, please!

Thank you Katie for being 'nervous' about traveling Europe by herself. Thank you mom for loving Katie so much to send me with. And thanks Dad for making the money to make it all happen!

So that's it now, I'm off to Brussels for 4 days and then 4 days in Amsterdam. I'm super proud of my ticket-deal skills. A bunch of surfing got me $600 tickets. (That's a bit more than it cost to fly to Hancock, MI for Thanksgiving.) And just as nice, my four hour lay-over is in Philly, where I'll meet my parents for lunch. Hopefully they'll let me pick up the bill.

My bag is packed (one carry-on), my guide books are bought (Encounter series from Lonely Planet), and my ipod is loaded up (lots of Rick Steves).

I've got a few must-dos on the schedule - Anne Frank House, Van Gough Museum, Belgian beer, chocolate, ice skating. What else should I add?

Monday, November 08, 2010

Karma, Boston style?

I had an awful morning. Biking has become not only part of my daily routine, but something I love and do to feel connected to my city. So when I lost my headlamp - my only light and way to hold on my hat in this god-awful weather and make it possible to bike - I was pissed. After a frantic 15 minutes tearing apart the house, I found it under a pile of coats in my car.

But then one mile into my ride, pedaling face first into the wind, I regretted biking. It was cold, I was barely going 5 mph and my pants and feet were soaked. I wished I hadn't found my g-d headlamp.

So the Gods send me a sign. Gah-dunk. I get a flat tire. Thankfully I'm just 4 blocks from a bike shop. I park my bike out in front (it's not open yet) and walk the last mile to work in the rain. I've been reading Eat, Pray, Love, so on my way I do what the character, Liz, does when things go wrong. I pray, or sort of. I'm not the God believing type. I offer up an apology to the thing overseeing the karmic balance of the world.

I'm sorry I crazily ransacked my house in search of my headlamp.

I'm sorry I regretted biking to work.

I'm sorry I'm acting as miserable as the weather.

I made it to work, wet and cold, but at peace, and what happens when I check my voicemail? I've won an in-office massage party for me and 7 co-workers. I call the massage center back. They'll come by any day we'd like and give us chair massages in the conference room.

Thank you, universe.

Monday, November 01, 2010

I'm on Rick Steves (again!)

We taped this back in March, but it finally aired this weekend on public radio stations. You can download the episode on itunes or windows media.

A year ago I got on an episode to ask about where to celebrate Day of the Dead. This time we talk about my trip, in particular about connecting with locals as a woman.

I even made the episode notes:
The Lunatic Express; Open Phones: Travel Discoveries

Airdate: October 30, 2010

Program 223

Carl Hoffman describes his experiences traveling on the most notorious, over-crowded trains, planes, busses and ferries from India to the Andes and listeners share their own travel discoveries and suggestions for seeing the world.

Additional Links:

  • Carl Hoffman's website
  • Caller Megan recommends reading the collection of women's essays called "Mexico: A Love Story," edited by Camille Cusumano, and published by Seal Press
  • Caller Jeff recommends reading Graham Robb's book "The Discovery of France," published by W. W. Norton, winner of the 2008 Ondaatje Prize

Last time I got to pick a free book for being on the show. Here's hoping they can ship a copy of Rick's Netherlands guide before my December trip!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Fall has Come to Boston

A free food & wine event lured us out to Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain last weekend.

More Deal Sites

Groupon started it all and then the flood came - Living Social, CoupMe, BuyWithMe. My personal opinion is that Groupon is still king, but here's an update on more coupon sites and which are still worth it.

Prepare yourself, there's a lot! Just be careful you don't overdeal it.

Groupon - Still the best. Still the most well presented. And now with the Groupon app, the easiest to use.

Living Social - Almost irrelevant now. Many deals are out of Boston, and they have way to many coupons for Brazillian blowouts (weren't those declared toxic?) and yoga classes.

CoupMe - They often have really amazing massage deals, but the rest of the deals are bunk.

BuyWithMe - Getting better and the cool thing is that their deals often last a week, so you can sit on it and decide if it's really worth it.

DigDeals - Great rotating sale of actual gift certificates that get mailed to you. Not a big selection, but always quality places.

Yelp Deals - Just launched this week. Not sure how frequent they're going to be or how good, but the first deal was $50 for a massage. Not bad.

Bloomspot - A higher end deal site, like stays at a French country inn, or limo rides.

Eversave - Most deals tend to be in the suburbs. Lots of spa deals.

KGB Deals - Questionable name. They had $6 movie tickets on sale, but now it looks like they haven't officially launched in Boston yet.

DealOn - Not launched yet.

Zozi - Local, National and Travel deals for around the world. They mostly sell hotel coupons and deals for activities like kayaking in Baja or photography classes in Boston.

Plum District - Mostly geared towards moms, but recent deals have also included Target gift cards and Bruegger's Bagels.

Tippr - Looks like they just steal deals that others have done.

Homerun - Well designed site. Looks like most of their deals are for small things like a $2 pitcher of sangria at Tasca or a $2 glass of wine at Davide's.

Dealster - Many are outside of Boston, but there's some amazing deals like $30 for 4 oil changes.

DealsforSchools - Some decent deals, like $30 for two facials, hair cut and pedicure. Bonus is that part of the proceeds go to schools!

Sites that bring together all the deals:

More on Vermont

I couldn't get enough of Vermont, so I went back again this weekend.

Okay, I had to go for work. Not normally would I inflict on myself 3 1/2 hours of driving by myself without needing to. I spent most of my waking hours working. But nonetheless, it was a good trip.
Most of the week was spent in Burlington. My work last week was mostly canvassing, my work consisted of long walks amidst the gorgeous autumn trees. I made sure to get to American Flatbread to have some Zero Gravity beer. Still the best brewery I've encountered yet. Sadly they don't carry six-packs, but I did grab a case of Rock Art and Trout River.

We also got to stay at a friend's parents house in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Vermont. It was practically like staying at a retreat center. It was also the same place we camped out at after my friend's wedding party there. It was nice (and warm) to be inside too! Here's some pictures from the wedding to give you an idea of just how gorgeous it was . . .

Monday, October 11, 2010

Discovering Vermont

VT Weekend

Chris and I take Columbus Day Weekend off to discover Vermont. We find out - it's great! Click above for the photo tour. Warning: we took a lot of pictures of beer.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

A Weekend on the Waterfront

It's really easy to forget that you live on a waterfront in Boston. Its a bit out of the way for those of us that work downtown or even Back Bay. Thankfully, for those of us with bikes, it's just a quick jaunt down to the water. With the big dig behind us and the Rose F Kennedy Greenway freshly green, there's no more pleasant place to be than the harbor.

First event on the water was Friday's Harpoon Oktoberfest which turned out to a
lso be under water. The event was held outside their waterfront breweryThere were three tents, with pools of water between them and rain pouring down. We tried to run between the raindrops, but without much success. So our pints had some Boston rainwater, but by the third we didn't notice. We were busy noticing the amazing German oompah band and folks in chicken hats.
Saturday I volunteered at the Boston Local Food Fest with Corporate Accountability, gathering petitions for their Think Outside the Bottle campaign. Right on the waterfront outside the Children's Museum we were afforded a beautiful view of downtown Boston across the water. We also got a ton of local, amazing food. This was the best free stuff event I've ever been too and I loaded up on samples of cheese, chocolate, crackers, pita, salads, apples and more.

But really, the waterfront is great even without big hullabaloos. Plenty of park benches and greenspace abound. Perfect for picnic lunches during the work week, or wine and cheese while watching the ships pass by at night.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fall Adventures

It's been quite a few weeks here in Boston! The weather has swung back and forth between cold and hot.

Last Saturday we were left cold at Jacob Wirth's when Harpoon didn't show to give out free tickets to Oktoberfest and liter steins as promised. Thankfully we did get some excellent beer and german food and our complaints on facebook got us our tickets and stein. So now that they've made it up to me, I encourage you to become a friend of Harpoon. They have lots of free events and card holders get into Oktoberfest for 1/2 price. Go here to register.

This week I also snuck a tour to the Just Beer Brewery in Westport on the South Coast. I happened to drive past this sign on my way to a meeting.

Well, I had to stop on my way back. Just Beer is a fairly new brewery. The owners have been making wine for a while, and decided they needed something to drink during football games, I suppose. I tried for ales and the standout was their Harry's IPA. I bought myself a growler.

This weekend was JP Open Studios, always a fall highlight. We saw a lot of good and bad art, drank a lot of free wine and checked out sweet JP apartments. I really got a kick out of checking out others' gardens too. These guys gave me some great ideas.

We ended Saturday with a trip to the Amesbury Brew Fest, which was filled with strange red-necks and some decent beer. A good $15 spent overall.

For some extra dough you could get inside this thing and ride down the mountain.

Cops were on hand to flirt with, I mean keep the peace.

A big Red Sox fan.

By the end things devolved quite a bit. We knew it was time to hit the road.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Boston Ahts

Well, Boston is no Paris. We don't have the Met like New York or the Getty like Los Angeles. But Boston has 'ahts'. Yes, that's arts with a Boston accent.

This weekend is the annual Boston Ähts Festival. The event takes place this Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Christopher Columbus Park. (Just plug in 105 Atlantic Ave., Boston, MA into google maps.)

I haven't been before, but their website looks pretty cool. Their acts range from indie folk rock to ballet to New Orleans R&B. There'll be visual art from glassblowing to ceramics to metalworking with a lot of hands-on demonstrations. I'll definitely checking it out in between the Greek Festivals. (Somerville and Brookline)

And that's not all Boston is doing to celebrate the Ahts. Check out the Public Art Boston website they've got a great map you can download with all the public art like old statues, murals and modern installations. Lastly, another great resource is the Boston Open Studios Coalition - there's a lot! Though of course my favorite, of course, is JP Open Studios. It's totally homey and has lots of great snacks. It's September 25th -26th, so mark your calendars and I'll see you there.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Back in Boston

I'm back settled in Boston after a long summer of travel, some chosen places, some not. And last week on the hottest day of the summer, we moved. Not far, just a mile away. It was still hard work in the heat and my back is still a bit thrown out. But the new apartment is absolutely lovely; just a block from the best restaurant in JP and equidistant to two T lines.

I've missed most of the summer festivals, unfortunately, but I promise to keep up even better my Boston of the Cheap calendar. Here's a few of the delights I've taken in since I've gotten back:

Swimming at Blue Hills National Park

Lunch at the Clover Food Lab in the Rose Kennedy Greenway

View from Nira Rock, a Boston urban wild

View of the historic Shirley Eustis House from the public orchard there

Labor Day tour of Harpoon

Friday, August 20, 2010

Oh Shenandoah, I long to hear you

Well obviously, I'm no professional blogger, which is why three weeks later I'm posting about my vacation. But I need to wrap this up, since so many exciting things are going on back here in Boston.

We spent two more days in the Smokies - hot and humid, without a shower, I really felt like we were roughing it, until you end up sitting in traffic on Newfound Gap Road with all the day tourists. Off the roads and in the woods, you could still feel like you were alone, one of the first settlers, or a Cherokee, for that matter.

We made sure to get some more local beer in in Bryson City - Nantahala Brewing Company - and headed North again on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Our next stop was Shenandoah, a place of fond childhood memories. (Though when I asked my mom what she remembered about the park she said, "Rain, lots and lots of rain.") But while we heard NPR reports of massive lightening storms and tornadoes in the DC area, we were blissfully unaware of any disturbance up in the high-elevation meadows of Shenandoah.

While the views weren't amazing, it was the minutiae that drew us in. Our campground at Big Meadows was surrounded by dozens of hiking trails. Within ten minutes of arriving to the park we saw a bear (and ended up seeing 5 on our stay). Our camping site was a 'walk-to' meaning that you had a several yard walk back to the site, which left us blissfully secluded. (Unlike being next to giant RVs with generators in the Smokies.)

I also loved that we had a touch of civilization. Shenandoah was a resort area back in the early 1900's and wasn't made into a park until FDR. So the lodge is still there, it may be run by Aramark, but it has charm.

A big window overlooking the valley is lined with rocking chairs. A bar downstairs featured local musicians at night. And, best of all - wifi. My favorite part was seeing the rows of backpacks outside the fancy restaurant on the ground. This must have been the first nice meal and shower folks who've been hiking the Appalachian trail had for a long time. Part of me wanted to hike the trail, but a bigger part of me wants to use my vacation days in Europe.

We took advantage of the ranger-led hikes, doing three of them. We spent a good time grilling the twenty-something ranger about life in the Service on the way down Hawksbill Mountain. Turns out it's not too unlike canvass directing. Low pay, you have the freedom to get transferred each season, you become an expert in each park you work in, you work outside. It might have been another good career path for me.

Even when leaving, the park charmed us with one last baby bear along the road.

So long, Shenandoah!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Through the Smokies

Leaving the urban sprawl behind, but not the heat we arrived in Appalachia. First stop was Sylva. A cute little town in the foothills. Destination: brewery. Heizelmachen was our first. Located in a small store front, the husband and wife team, the former from the Black Forest of Germany, own this tiny operation. Perhaps the tiniest brewery I've ever seen, a chill college student poured our eight brews and furnished us with great Bavarian pretzels. Filling our keg would be tempting, but we already have learned that beer doesn't keep too well in our trunk.

Sylva is apparently a budding brewery town. We also got a chance to try to new brews at Sapphire Brewing Company, which has the cutest setup that feels like you're hanging out at someone's house. (It probably is.)

Leaving our empty mugs, we headed into the park. First hurdle was the Cherokee Indian Reservation. No casinos here, just Bingo night, and a ton of tourist stands selling moccasins, tomahawks, and dream catchers.

You enter the southern end of the Smokies through a meadow, in a valley surrounded by lush, high mountain slopes. Our campground was just a few miles in. We realized we were back in the South with the number of trailers and RVs parked around our site. Gangs of children cruised the streets on bikes and generators hummed. Almost every license plate was from North Carolina. Cooking that night the neighbors, who were rarely seen outside of their RV, were super-friendly and gave us a whole plate of fried potatoes, hush puppies and catfish. How Christian of them!

Chris put it best when he said that Smokies was best on the macro level (and Shenandoah on the micro level). Drives can be long through the park, and sometimes you even sit in traffic, but the views are gorgeous. The first night we try to go to a ranger program in Cades Cove, which ends up being an hour and a half through the park. We give up half-way on the drive and just stop to watch the most gorgeous sunset I've ever seen that hasn't been over an ocean.

Afterwards we decide to keep going to Gatlinburg. Imagine: you drive for over an hour through complete wilderness. You look out on either side of the road and see nothing for as far as you can see. Then all of a sudden - boom - you're right in the middle of Hick-ville Disneyland. Stand-still traffic, neon signs, fat people in fanny packs strolling down the street, tourist traps like a wax museum and house of horrors. We park as soon as possible and started over to the one place that might be the one tolerable place in town: the Smoky Mountain Brewery. I get distracted by an outdoor bluegrass band accompanied by the chickenman.

I didn't get this one on tape, but we also saw the four curly-haired, pig-tailed, gingham-dressed tap-dancing children. But we finally did make it in. The sampler was $8 and an astounding 10 very creative beers. We walked off the buzz afterwards through the neon-lights and slowly made our way back to the other end of the park.

Our next day would include even more miles in the car, but a bit more adventure.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Emerging from the South, we hit Atlanta next. Which is more city, than South. Though I did notice more gals in high-heels and hairsprayed do's than I'm used to.

Atlanta has by far and away the best breweries made for hanging out. A few days a week both the Red Brick Brewing Company and Sweetwater Brewery hold open houses. For $7 and $8 respectively we got a glass and several drink tickets. Plenty enough to get you buzzed. Red Brick also had entertainment and Sweetwater had a nice outdoor patio. And to boot, the beer was great!

We used our daytimes as real vacation time. We swam, read books, generally lazed about. Didn't do lick of sight-seeing in the city. But it was nice to relax, drink good beer and catch up with my sister. Overall I really did like the city a lot and despite being far from the ocean, I think I wouldn't mind living there.

But soon we were off to our next stop: the Great Smoky Mountains.

Honky Tonk!

We were lucky enough to be hosted by a couple I hosted from couchsurfing not too long ago. Tim and Theresa did an amazing job showing us around town in their cool, new mini cooper. First stop was the Parthenon. Yes, that's right, the Parthenon. Nashville made it for their 1897 Centennial Expedition and they liked it so much, they kept it.

Today is houses a small art collection and a giant statue of Athena. We strolled the Centennial gardens, zoomed around the city to see the skyline view, and 'shopped' the museum of Dolly Parton.

We landed in a great honky-tonk bar that would be exactly what you'd picture Nashville to be like. Somehow it managed to retain an air of authenticity, despite being on what I'm sure was the tourist strip. Cowboyhat-clad old men sat at the bar next to tattooed young punks with faux-hawks. Some girls in daisy-dukes and some men with popped collars. It was hard to stereotype the crowd.

So we didn't. We drank our local, Yazoo Beer, listened to the music and enjoyed the fried food and company.

Huge Caves

As you might imagine, internet connection on the road is splotchy. Especially when you're in the Great Smokies. Here's an update from Big Meadows Lodge in Shenandoah.

After two days of driving, beering and boating, we reached Mammoth Cave. Less beautiful than other caverns I've seen, but far more abuzz with history and stories. Its also, of course, mammoth. We got the tip off to buy our tickets early. Surprisingly, you can only enter with a guide, and tours cost $10-$45 a pop. We picked the Violet City lantern tour. For some reason, hicks like to name places 'City' even if its just a general store and a bar at a crossroads (Bryson City, Cave City, etc...)

Our ranger guide was an old local Kentuckian. Who liked to make you think about your place on the planet. My favorite spot was the ceiling that looked like you were looking at a night sky from inside a gorge. The fires that folks that lived in the cave years ago blackened the ceiling, leaving just small flecks of the original sparkly white stone. Ralph Waldo Emmerson, a Concordian, wrote a poem about it; he was so inspired.

That night as the real stars were coming out, we arrived in Nashville.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

More Beer, More Driving

First stop was Ellicotville Brewing Company in Fredonia, NY. Next stop Barley's Smokehouse in Columbus, OH. Good ribs, according to Chris and I ate the macaroni salad and beer for breakfast.

Third brewery was Elevator Brewery & Draught Haus in a historic old building downtown. We were wowed by the building, the bar and my favorite brew of the week - Mogabi. Amazing. Its a cross between an IPA and a hefeweizen. (!)

Last drive by brewery is Brownings in Louisvile at Slugger Field. Nothing too special, but they do have shiny gold tanks and a sharp Pale Ale called 'She-Devil.'

Still driving . . .