Queenstown, New Zealand

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I’m excited to share with you our time in Queenstown, New Zealand.

In recent months whenever I mentioned this trip to friends and colleagues, they always said, “You have to go to Queenstown!”

Mountains. Fresh air. Beautiful views. Outdoor adventures.

And I’m so glad we followed their advice. This mountain village has it all.

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We stayed at the Novotel Queenstown Lakeside with views facing Lake Wakatipu. All this beauty was literally steps away.

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The first afternoon we spent leisurely walking around the lake and soaking up the beautiful winter sun. Queenstown is on the southwestern side of the South Island, so it was quite a bit cooler here than Auckland. It was bright and sunny, but a down coat was definitely needed!

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For lunch, we tried the famous Fergburger, which is said to have one of the best burgers in the country. It was good!

The next morning, we took the gondola up to the peak overlooking the city. We were lucky that the clouds lifted and we were able to get these panoramic views looking down on Queenstown.

It was still early in the season, so no skiing was available yet. But year-round, you can all do all sorts of other activities from there including hiking, paragliding, and the luge!

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Zip down the side of the mountain and take in the views as you go. Not bad, right?

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After spending a few hours at the peak, we decided to hike down instead of taking the gondola again.

It only took us about one hour and we appreciated getting the fresh air to stave off the jet lag.

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We spent 4 days in Queenstown, so it became our home base for lots of other outings and adventures including day trips to the famous Milford Sound, Lake Wakana, and Otagu region wineries.

We thought the natural scenery couldn’t get much better than here, but we were wrong. I’ll be sharing so much more soon!

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Waiheke Island, New Zealand

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We just got back from a two week trip to New Zealand!

Though we’re still getting over our jet-lag (NZ is 16 hours ahead), we’re still riding high from this trip.

Ya’ll, I’ve never seen such a concentration of natural beautiful landscapes in my life. If you’re a fan of Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit films, you know what I’m talking about.

And in case you’re wondering, those rugged mountain landscapes, wild forests, and electric blue mountain lakes you’ve seen in pictures and movies are all REAL.

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Here are some shots from our first full day in New Zealand on Waiheke Island, a quick 45 minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland.

On this day, a wine tour called our names and we could’t have asked for a better day. Can you believe that ocean and greenery?

Incidentally, Waiheke island has its own special microclimate, so even though it’s early winter there, the temperatures stay mild year round. It was in the mid-60s and sunny while we were there.

 

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The first stop on the wine tour was Casa Miro, where we tried so many delicious wines paired with special taste enhancers like a piece of cheese, a candied walnut, or olive spread on bread. Such a fun way to sample wines and I really wish more wineries did it this way.

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This winery is a labor of love for the owner, a medical doctor by day, who grows grapes and runs this winery totally in his free time. He also has something of an obsession for Gaudi as you can see by his Guell Park inspired bar, which had us reminiscing about Barcelona.

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We could’ve stayed here all day, but soon it was time for the second stop, Obsidian winery, a tiny place tucked away in the middle of nowhere on Waiheke.

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It was here we got to chatting away with some friendly New Zealand ladies, who ended up giving us so many good “insider” recommendations for places to see and most importantly, restaurants to dine at. In fact, it was so fun and I got so into talking with them that I don’t even really remember the wines here.

When it was time to part ways, all four of the ladies gave me kisses on both cheeks ( I thought that was a French thing, but apparently, they do that in New Zealand too) I wasn’t expecting that, but I really do think it’s a nice custom.

The final stop was Te Motu Winery with its award winning restaurant, “The Shed”. This rustic winery was simple and beautiful and it was here that we stopped for lunch.

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We feasted on lamb shoulder, sliced beef with mushrooms, roasted potatoes with tarragon aioli, bean and fennel salad, and a special dessert.

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This dessert was a “deconstructed” cheesecake made with kumara, which is the Maori word for pumpkin. It had a sort of autumn vibe to it, which struck me as odd in June, but then I remembered that the seasons are reversed here.

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Weekend in Richmond

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Last weekend, Sean and I packed our overnight bags and made a spontaneous trip to Richmond, Virginia.

Richmond is only about 90 miles away from us, yet we’ve only ever passed through the city on our way south. We spent our getaway exploring downtown and the old neighborhoods, visiting Museum of Fine Arts, and eating and drinking our way around the city.

Hope you enjoy the highlights!

Day One


Our first order of business in Richmond was food and drink, of course. We headed to the Naked Onion sandwich shop and got the famous Pork Belly Banh Mi (pictured above) and Manchego grilled cheese with red pepper coulis. These sandwiches were good and such a bargain as this take out place is a local cheap eats favorite.

From there, we needed a little refreshment and being cider fans, we visited the Blue Bee Urban Cidery. Since it was a cooler day, we sat inside one of the cozy stone walled tasting rooms. We’ll visit again on a warm day to enjoy the outdoor ambiance and the special hops and ice cream sandwiches they serve!

After lunch, we stopped in the famous Jefferson Hotel to admire the grand lobby with tall marble columns, burgundy walls, and portraits of presidents and snap a few photos. They serve a lavish brunch on Sundays and we made a note to return to enjoy that soon.

Next up was the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which houses some great collections. We particularly enjoyed the Greek mummies and ancient Italian exhibits. In addition, the outside grounds are beyond beautiful and we were intrigued with the unusual sculpture of a head which changes from male to female depending on what angle you look at it.

At 4 o’clock, it was cocktail time, so we headed to The Rogue Gentlemen. This small dive bar serves the most interesting drinks, each labeled with its dominant characteristics (sweet/refreshing/citrus/herbal/bitter/smoky/etc ) so there’s little chance you can order wrong. Sean ordered a cocktail called “Vampire Kit to ward off Vampires” which had garlic infused Oster Vit, Beckerovka, rum, and lime. I know the garlic part sounds a little weird, but I promise you, this drink was really tasty and fresh!

They can also custom create a cocktail just for you. I jumped at the chance and requested something herbal and refreshing and got this lovely rum, blood orange, and basil creation.

When in Richmond (or anywhere in the South, really), you must eat pimento cheese. So we couldn’t resist the jalapeño pimento cheese crostini platter. This restaurant also serves a tasting menu with each course only $12. This is such a bargain compared to prices in DC and we observed some really tasting looking things coming out of the kitchen, but we had other dinner plans at Burger Bach, so we stopped with our cheese platter.

So, the burgers were awesome. Sean is so picky when it comes to burgers being from Texas and son of a rancher and all, but these were made from New Zealand beef and he approved.

Day Two

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On Day Two in Richmond, we made our way at 9 am to The Fancy Biscuit. When we arrived, there were nearly 50 people waiting in line ahead of us! Not ones to be deterred, though, we stayed in line. This is usually a good sign that the food is something special.

And it was so special! The Fancy Biscuit might be my favorite new restaurant.

They specialize in biscuits (hence the name) but not your plain biscuits with butter and grape jelly (though I don’t mind those either). These are biscuit creations with all kinds of toppings from goat cheese to collard greens to apple slaw.

We ordered two versions. One had pepper jelly, goat cheese, and fried chicken. The other had a poached egg, ham, and Sriracha hollandaise. So good! Will definitely be trying to recreate these at home.

Our final stop on our Richmond itinerary was the beautiful Maymont Gardens. It was the perfect early Summer day for a walk in the park, and this one featured both Italian and Japanese gardens. This park was absolutely free, which amazes me, and it was the best way to end our weekend trip to Richmond.


DC Eats: Pineapple and Pearls

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Don’t let the name of this restaurant fool you. It’s no frothy lightweight experience.

In fact, this year Washingtonian magazine ranked Pineapple and Pearls the number one restaurant in DC.

And let me tell you. Getting a reservation here is no easy feat. You have to be on the website the second- no millisecond – the reservations open and hit “reserve” before you can blink. There’s no hesitating at all.

This is how you beat out 2,000 other eager diners (so we were told by our server) for a dinner spot. But even then, your meal might start at an awkward time like 9 pm on a Wednesday night and go until almost midnight like it did in our case.

 

Even though I’m more of a person at heart who’d rather be in her pajamas in bed by 10 pm, we were so excited about going to eat here.

The restaurant is a classy tiny room with space for only about 30 diners at a time. Because we were a party of two, we sat at the chef’s counter, where we got to see all the action as it happened in front of us.

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Like our meal at Minibar, it is truly fun to watch the chefs in their habitat, and the whole scene unfolds like a perfectly choreographed event.

The meal starts with something called “Afternoon Tea” which offers up a trio of little bits including a foie gras canele paired with a teacup of gin with Cloosterbitters, rum, and quince.

Next, we had a series of more tasty dishes including beef tartare & caviar, charred octopus, split pea consommé, and a french omelet.

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All delicious, but I have to say I was partial to the octopus. Didn’t know it could taste that good.

The next course was black sea bass (another fish I didn’t know could be so delectable)

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This was followed by probably my favorite of the entire night, a sweet bread taco served along side a mescal tequila.

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At about this point, I could’ve stopped and been perfectly happy with the meal.

But there was one more savory to come!

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Like this trio of sides (persian rice, white beans, and dolmas) for the lamb dish.

The savory part of the meal completed, the next course was a resheshing pineapple granita with soda.

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This was followed by our last fancy drinks of the night, amari and coffee, served with dessert.

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I think you need a close up of the dessert. It was Okinawa purpose potato ice cream (close to our hearts) with chocolate cake and chestnuts.

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Finally, the meal rounded out with the most exotic fruit plate with starfish, banana chocolate lollipops, and candied gooseberries.

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All in all, the food was delightful and the service was top notch.

But in the end, perhaps one of the most luxurious parts of the experience is there is no bill at the end.

No check. No waiting. No figuring out the tip. You pay upfront for all of it when you get the coveted reservation (food, drinks, and gratuity).

So, you just decide when you’re ready to leave, get up, and go.


Greece Trip- Day 3, Santorini

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The next stop in our Greece trip was the island of Santorini. If you plan on visiting Greece, you absolutely cannot miss it!

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After a lot of research about getting there from Athens, we found the easiest and maybe most cost-effective way (considering time and effort) was flying. We booked flights through Aegean Air at about 69 euros per ticket, and the flight took about 30 minutes.

Many people stay in busy Fira or touristy Oia, but we stayed in between in Imerovigli. The Afroessa Hotel blew us away with its staggeringly beautiful views.

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All 10 rooms in this small boutique hotel have ocean views and a private terrace where you can enjoy breakfast gazing at the ocean or a glass of wine as the sun sets. They also have small kitchenettes so you can purchase some grocery items.

It was also really easy to get to both Fira and Oia by local buses, which only cost a few euros for a trip.

The first day, we hiked the famous trail from Fira to Oia. I highly recommend it!

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This hike is like nothing else… first, it winds up through the narrow maze of streets of Fira, past cafes, chapels, and curio shops. Next it takes you past hotels and homes with sweeping Caldera views, then through the rustic mountainside, and finally ends in the pristine white stucco village of Oia.

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Many people do this hike first thing in the morning, but we started it a few hours before sunset and arrived in Oia just as the sun was going down.

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Give yourself about 3 hours if you’re starting in Fira, and take lots of water, a hat, and sunscreen! There are so many wonderful things to look at along the way.

Trust me, it’s worth it!

 


Athens, Day 2

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In my last post about Athens, I mentioned we easily explored as independent travelers here.

That said, if you’re only here a day or two like we were, an organized tour of the major ancient sites is a great idea.

Alternative Athens offers excellent walking tours to historic sites, street art around the city, and local foodie haunts. We did the 4 hour city highlight tour, covering 5 major sites and teaching us everything we needed to know about Greek mythology and ruins.

I highly recommend this company. Our guide was informative and lovely, and the company was accommodating. Originally no tours were scheduled the day we wanted, but they ran one because of our interest.

This tour cost about 46 euros per person and we each also bought a combination pass for 30 euros, which let us access many historic sites over 5 days, including the Acropolis, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Ancient Agora, and Kerameikos Ancient Cemetary.

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After our tour, one of the highlights of the day and the whole trip was seeing the changing of the guards.

This takes place every day every hour on the hour in front of the Parliament Building. It’s really easy to find… just head to nearby Syntagma Square by metro or bus.
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You’ll wait in a huge crowd facing the tall handsome guards (yes, there is a height and weight requirement) and a few minutes before the ceremony, they’ll let you take pictures next to the guard.

Strictly no touching though!On Sundays, there is a special ceremony at 11 am, involving all the guards and is apparently a sight to behold.

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Finally, one of my all time favorite ways of discovering a city is just wandering the streets, narrow alleys, and off the beaten paths. Athens has dozens of charming chapels to admire and peek inside as well as so many interesting little shops.


Greece Trip- Athens, Day 1

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View of Acropolis from the Plaka Hotel

Hey ya’ll, we just back from a 10 day trip to Greece!

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Over 10 days, we visited Athens and islands Santorini and Mykonos. There’s so much to say, but today is about some of our experiences from Athens.

Our first day, we checked into The Plaka Hotel and explored the city center. Our hotel was perfectly located and had this amazing view of the ruins above.

Walking around the area, I loved looking inside all the small local shops and restaurants in the market district. We saw multiple butchers, spice shops, curio shops, and loofah and soap stores!

We went for a great lunch at a restaurant inside a butcher shop called Karamanlidika, and started our love affair with Greek food. It’s so simple but fresh and tasty.

We ordered a spinach salad, eggplant and zucchini, and greek sausages with yogurt. And Sean, who doesn’t generally go for yogurt in the states, actually enjoyed the authentic Greek version.

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Yogurt with spiced carrots

For our first meal in Greece, this place knocked it out of the park and it turned out to be one of our favorite dining experiences in Athens.

Before going to Greece, we watched a documentary about modern Greece and learned about an anonymous subversive street artist who paints murals on the sides of building all over town. Most of his art is a social commentary on the financial crisis in Greece and criticism of Greek government.

Walking around town, we were able to find some of the murals easily.

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We were so hot (90 degrees every day!) and jetlagged, but we managed to explore a little bit in the Acropolis area.

Athens is one of the oldest cities in the world, and it was fun thinking about how this square facing the Acropolis has likely been a social gathering place for over two thousand years, and it still is!

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After a few hours, we went back to our hotel to enjoy the rooftop patio as the sun went down.

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Have you been to Athens? What are your impressions?