Monday, September 28, 2015

24 Hours Tallinn, Estonia

After a two and a half hour cruise we arrived in the port of Tallinn, Estonia and checked in to the Merchant Hotel in Old Town. It's a funny hotel with big rooms of irregular size and the location is absolutely perfect to explore the entire ancient area on foot.

As the Christmas Market was going on we dropped our bags and headed out to do a little shopping and sightseeing. It was chilly and drizzly as we walked around the walled medieval town. The stone walls, streets, and buildings hadn't seemed to change much since the 11th century.

We were able to climb up to parts of the town wall for glimpses of red tiled roofs and church spires. For such a small town there are a lot of churches!
We stopped into the popular bar Hell Hunt for a few beers and snacks and then headed back to the hotel for a nap. We'd been up very early!

It was my birthday so we had a nice dinner planned at Restoran Ö. We started with cocktails from our hotel's "Ice Bar" which had a lot of flash but never had any customers except for us. They were quite intrigued by Forest & mine gin martini requests, obviously serving mainly vodka.

It was a quick cab ride to the restaurant which sat just outside the walls of the Old Town. The decor was a bit Scandinavian, minimalistic and beautiful. Our server was absolutely wonderful and even presented us with a few things compliments of the kitchen. And at the end of dinner when I asked for a cheese plate instead of dessert she stuck a candle in it! Very fun!
The next morning after breakfast, which was included in our hotel price, we walked to Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the beautiful onion dome church.
We continued walking to the Hill of the Harju grounds where we came across archery lessons. Random. Forest and I had a little competition in which she won. Barely.
The town, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, is really charming and it is easy and relaxing just to stroll around. We headed back to Old Town and had lunch at the touristy medieval restaurant Olde Hansa.  Sometimes you just have to play the tourist that you are.
The place is lit entirely by candlelight, the only utensils are makeshift wooden spreaders and spoons, the cocktails were thematic and very herbal, and our waitress was dressed like a wench. We had a great time!

We just had just enough time after lunch to walk back through the Christmas Market and grab a hot Calvados before catching a cab and our ferry to Helsinki.

All photos of Tallinn here

Monday, September 21, 2015

Desert Destination

In March I left behind the rain of Seattle and flew to Palm Springs with friends for my 3rd annual trip. This time we were there for a full week and there were six of us. We left early in the morning and flew right into Palm Springs Airport as we had all purchased our tickets well in advance, bonus for me in that Delta upgraded me to first class, hello free Bloody Marys.

Once we landed we dropped our bags at our house, the Contempo Oasis, and fueled up on salads and sandwiches at Cafe Europa downtown. Nourishment was needed for the major grocery shopping we needed to do for the week. We set off in teams and soon were back at the house enjoying the pool, hot tub, and cold beverages.

Since I was going to be gone a whole week I decided that every day I would work in the morning, my room had a desk and stool that looked right out to the pool, encouraging me to finish my tasks and jump in!

Besides work I also decided that I was going to go on a 30-60 minute run/walk each morning. The area is riddled with midcentury modern homes so everyday was a little free tour!

Lauren, Mary, and I went to the tennis matches at Indian Wells one day. We had incredible seats in Stadium 2 and started the day watching Andy Murray v. Adrian Mannarino. We broke for lunch and relaxed with expensive glasses of champagne at the Moet Lounge while waiting for our table at Nobu. Sounds like New York right?

At Nobu you can wait for a seat at the window which over looks the court. There is a minimum charge and some time restraints and honestly we didn't think the view was that good so we just sat at a regular table.

After lunch I headed off to Stadium 1 and grabbed a seat in the nose bleed seats to watch some crazy storm clouds and also Jack Sock v. Roger Federer.

One afternoon Mary, Lauren, her brother and I went to lunch at Simon Kitchen inside the Hard Rock Hotel. It was good; crispy chicken skin appetizers, Iron Chef burger, spicy tator tots (that made great leftover clean-out-the-fridge totchos!) but not amazing.

We also went out one night, I reserved us all the private room at Tonga Hut. We entered through the "secret" phone booth and had an entire little room, all decked out in tiki and pirate decor, to ourselves. The drinks were good, the food was meh, the service was snarky.

But really some days it was all about the sun, the pool, good friends, and good homemade food. Exactly what I need in the middle of winter.

Flights and the same house are already booked for next year!


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Back in Madrid

Our Spain 2013 summer trip ended back in Madrid 14 days later. We arrived mid day and checked into the absolutely stunning 5* Hospes Hotel  in Plaza Independancion. The only short-coming of the hotel is that there is no pool, but having just spent the last 2 weeks at pools and on beaches it was fine for me.

We headed back to Plaza Santa Ana for some tapas and beers before wandering over to the Mercado San Miguel. If there is one do-not-miss place to eat in Madrid it is here. This modern market is filled with absolutely amazing food and wine stalls. You can wander around, picking up a small cone of mixed salami from one place, a glass of champagne from another, maybe a sea urchin, and then just grab one of the many stand-up tables and enjoy your finds. I made multiple discoveries and sadly was full well before I had a chance to sample even half of the offerings. This was a perfect dinner!

After dinner I compared gintonics at Bar Cock & Gin Club, two of the more well know cocktail places in town. Both were great, with Bar Cock feeling a bit more old fashioned (in a good way for me) and Gin Club being a little trendier. They are close to each other so no reason not to visit both!

For lunch the next day we did another market meal at the Mercado de Anton Martin. This one is a little smaller, a bit more trendy, and while very good (with fancy small dishes like foie gras risotto in a little bathtub!) it wasn't as fun as the other. Again, if you have time to do both why not?

Before heading to the fabulous Museum Reina Sofia we had a pick me up of chocolate and parros at the aptly named Chocolat.

This museum has the most amazing collection of art but the most famous must be Picasso's Guernica. And although that is worth the price of admission it would be a shame not to explore and see the other fantastic pieces. The Miro collection for me was the big treat!

Madrid has a little area that is famous for its shoe makers, specifically espadrilles. After a lot of searching I finally found the shop that is most well known, Casa Hernanz Cordeleria. I lined up with men, women, and children, all wanting the handmade and affordable comfortable shoes provided since 1860. It took a lot of pantomime and pointing since I don't speak Spanish, but I finally scored 3 pairs before leaving.

One last meal before our morning flight home. We chose the semi-fancy La Tasquita de Enfrente. This is the perfect place to have a nice coursed meal of slightly upscale Spanish cuisine without 1) breaking the bank and 2) having to pack formal attire. The chef could not have been nicer, the food was delicious, and the atmosphere was really comfortable.

Adios Madrid! Photos here.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Trails, Caves, and Beaches in Mallorca

After a great week with friends we flew to Mallorca from the airport in Alicante, about 2-hours from the house in Turre. We landed in Palma, picked up our rental car and had a 40-minute scenic drive north through the mountains to Soller.

If you stay in Palma you will be crushed by German and British holiday-goers, huge resorts, lots of traffic, etc. But Soller is a charming town nestled in the mountains, once known mainly for its olive oil production. We stayed at the Finca Ca Quatra which is a restored farmhouse about a 10 minute walk from town. Our room had a balcony which allowed for fantastic views of the Tramuntana Mountains. It is an incredibly beautiful and peaceful location.
The town is divided into two sections, Soller which is the main part, and Porto Soller which is at the port. The two are connected by road or streetcar.
The hills of northwestern Mallorca are a hiker's paradise. We set out the morning of our first full day to hike to the tiny towns of Biniaraix and Fornalutx. Our hiking trail was a road at times, dirt paths at others, and sometimes we just had to do a little train blazing.

We walked through groves of orange, lemon, lime, fig, prickly pear, and olives. We passed thru villages and the backyards of farm houses. We crossed paths with lazy dogs, curious cats, and hungry goats.

In Fornalutx we had lunch of fresh grilled fish while taking in the amazing views of the valley at the restaurant Ca N'Antuna which our hotel host had recommended. She also recommended their lemon pie which was delicious!
Our round trip hike took about 4 hours, including lunch and time for a quick olive oil tasting. It was one of the prettiest hikes I've ever done and would highly recommend.

On the far east side of the island in Porto Cristo are the Cuevas del Drach. These highly touristy caves are also really incredible to tour, so you just have to grin and bear it! The tour takes about an hour.
Near the end of the tour there is a large lake in the cave. The tour includes a classical music concert on the lake, which sounds a little hokey but is pretty cool. The acoustics are amazing. Afterwards we boarded a boat and were rowed to the other end near the exit.
As Mallorca is an island there are some really gorgeous beaches to suss out. On the way back from the Cuevas del Drach we stopped at Le Truc for a bit of sun. First off you get to drive past the salt producers/farms! Anyone who knows me knows I love good salt! We didn't do it but you can sign up for a tour. I was happy to buy bags for myself and friends from this salt vending machine!!
If you keep driving past the salt you'll get to this gorgeous beach which has lounge chairs and a bar!
Another popular and stunning beach destination is the area of Puerto Pollença. About an hour and a half from Soller there are lovely resort towns with bars, cafes, shops, and restaurants. After a nice lunch we just explored the area, driving past coastlines overrun with beautiful windsurfer sails, and finally parked and spent the afternoon sunbathing on white sugar sand with clear warm blue ocean to dip in.
Of course close to home the Porto Soller has a lovely if a bit boring shoreline. You can absolutely sunbathe, swim, rent water-toys, etc. But my favorite thing about this area was sitting outside at the gin bar Albatross with its selection of over 60 gins all paired with complementary boutique tonics and special garnishes. Now that's a beach cocktail!

Not all the beaches are white sand and calm surf. Near Soller there are numerous coves offering incredible vistas but also some steep hikes in and out. The town of Deia has an absolutely amazing cove which is not easily found, but worth it if you have some patience. We braved the warm but very strong winds to have lunch at a wooden shack built into the rocks one afternoon. We were rewarded by an amazing lunch of some of the largest langoustines I've ever encountered, along with amazing scenery.
After lunch we carefully picked out way thru the rocky beach and found a large smooth boulder to soak up some rays on. Sometimes a great experience isn't always the easiest.

Mallorca photos here

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Summer Holidays in the South of Spain

Summer holidays spent in the south are a thing with the Europeans. I've been lucky enough to have a few holidays in Provence, soaking up the sun and the wine with good friends. One of my friends and her family leave Paris each August and rent a house somewhere for the month, inviting other friends and family for weekly visits. One year they decided to rent in the south of Spain and generously invited us to join. This gave us a chance to do a little southern Spain loop, starting in Madrid and continuing to Seville before flying into the Almeria area. This coastal province is famous for its beaches,  deserts, and the largest concentration of greenhouses in the world- over 64,000 acres best seen from the air.

Forest and Thibault were nice enough to pick us up and it was an easy hour drive to the tiny town of Turre near Mojacar. We arrived at the house, unpacked and then us girls headed out for a nice catch-up lunch at Adalina, the main restaurant in town.

There are a few specialties of this region that I highly recommend. Most places offer freshly baked puffy bread with a whipped garlic aioli that is incredible (unless you plan on kissing someone who hasn't had it). Gazpacho is a trademark dish, as are caracoles (snails in a tomato sauce), and paella with seafood.

We spent most of the next 5 days just relaxing with our friends who I see so infrequently, swimming in the pool, playing with their kids, shopping the local market, and cooking dinners together.

There are some cute towns around here so we headed out a few times for brief explorations, never straying too far from our pool though! Our house sat half way up one of the low mountains and the guys hiked to the top a few times, passing wandering goats, fancy houses, and great vistas. It was just as easy to drive up for sunset and an apero :)

One afternoon we headed to Playa Mojacar and after a delicious lunch of tapas at Cava Restaurant, situated right on the beach, we took a dip in the ocean; it was warm, calm, and gorgeously clear!

The hilltop town that we could see across the valley, Mojacar Pueblo, not only was very picturesque from afar but it was a great little town for a drink after the beach. We met a local British woman who sat and spoke to us about the expat community. Seems retired English folks love to live in this area and actually outnumber the Spanish. Basically, besides paella and gazpacho, you can find a proper fry up breakfast at numerous places around town.

The sleepy fishing village of Garrucha was another great place for a nice lunch. We found the restaurant Ricónes del Puerto and enjoyed fresh seafood specialties like this octopus (pulpo) in olive oil and pimenton along with cold Spanish rosé.

Spain has the most Blue Flag Beaches in Europe, an award based on environmental and safety standards. There was one right down from Garrucha which we dipped into and soaked up some sun on the pristine sand.

To Nic, Luke, Luca, Naoise, and Charlotte... Hope you are having a fabulous time on your summer holidays! xo

All Turre/Mojacar photos here.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Jerez Day Trip

It's an easy drive from Seville to Jerez, just over an hour on the highway. We picked up a rental car not far from our hotel and arrived in the city just around lunch time. Our main activity was to tour the Lustau winery, as Jerez is famous for sherry there are many producer tours to choose from, Lustau was recommended and also had English tours at convenient times.

The town was extremely quiet when we arrived, most people were taking siesta. It was also crazy hot. We parked by the distillery and sat down at the first place we saw that was open and serving food.

You know those times when you stumble upon something so delicious at someplace so unexpected? Our bocadillos from this random bar were some of the tastiest we had in all of Spain! It was like finding gourmet food at a gas station (like in Hawaii!).

We headed over for our reserved tour time and joined a very small group of English speakers. Our tour guide led us through the open-air barrel rooms with dirt floors and explained the solera and criaderas systems. She even showed us a barrel that had a clear plexiglass window where we could see the dead yeast, or flor as it is called, resting on the bottom.

The winery is quite beautiful and the tour was very interesting, much different than the regular wineries I have been to. At the end of the tour we tasted through the Lustau lineup and learned a bit more of the different styles of sherry.
After our tour we headed to the center of town and had some not very good gazpacho from one of the restaurants in the main square. With temperatures near 100F we needed some shade and a beverage! Then we walked over to the Alcazar and caught the last camera obscura entrance of the day.

I had never seen a camera obscura before and it was really, really impressive. We climbed up into the tower and into a small room. The door was shut and we were in complete darkness. Then the guide opened a small hole in the ceiling and a mirror reflected the outside activity onto a large disc in the center of the room. As the guide rotated the mirror we got to view the entire town without taking a step! We could see birds flying, people walking, cars driving, it was all really interesting!

We spent some time walking around the Alcazar after, it is minuscule compared to the one in Seville. The building and the grounds are gorgeous though and you can see the ruins, ancient baths, and old olive grinding stones. If you are in Seville I highly recommend a day trip to Jerez, and if you are in Jerez I'd say the camera obscura is a do-not-miss.

Jerez photos here.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Seville, More Than Oranges

I had been wanting to go to Seville since my first trip to Europe, but didn't have time for it. I was really looking forward to spending a few days in what I heard was one of the prettiest cities in Spain. I'd now argue that it is one of the prettiest in Europe.

The train to Seville from Madrid is just 2 1/2 hours and we practically had the car in Preferenté class to ourselves.

A quick cab from the train station took us to the 5* Hotel Alfonso XIII. This hotel was absolutely stunning. As it was August, when most people don't travel in southern Spain, I had gotten some great deals using for our hotels. Our room, on the 3rd floor, was huge! Marble bathroom, king size bed, chandelier, and a large balcony with a view of the Cathedral next door. And of course a wonderful pool area for a daily dip. Easily one of my favorite places I have ever stayed.

Did I mention the hotel's bar, Bar Americano? Awesome cocktails, and the perfect place for an evening nightcap.

Seville is a stunning city, especially at night when the buildings are lit up. It is very easy to walk around -- we never took a cab, but you can take a horse and carriage if you like -- and places were easy to find. Plaza Espanol is especially pretty!

A morning spent at the Real Alcazar is a must. From the moment you enter you are completely surrounded by the most beautiful gardens and architecture. I'd never seen anything like it in my life. Pictures just don't do it justice.

You'll want to be done by lunch as the heat is shocking. There is a lovely shaded square behind the Alcazar called Plaza de Dona Elvira that we enjoyed some refreshing gazpacho in.

I also loved walking across the bridge to the Triana area. This side of the Guadalquivir River has an interesting past and its residents feel they are separate from Seville. Unique. It reminded me of how residents of the 18th in Paris feel. We visited the Mercato and stocked up on jamon iberico, witnessed people queuing up and being interviewed for a restaurant job while having lunch at Las Golondrinas II (the Spanish unemployment rate in Aug of 2013 was over 25%), and shopped in the tile and ceramic district, one of the main things Triana is known for.
Crossing back over the Puente de Triana we walked past Seville's bullring which dates back to 1749.

Seville Cathedral is another eye candy stop. Chambers, alters, and chapels prove the city's past wealth. There are rooms completely filled with silver, gold, and bronze display items. Climbing the ramps and steps to the top of the Giralda (tower) gives you stunning views of the city.

A lot of the normally recommended restaurants were closed for the August holidays, but we still found deliciousness. As always, the only bad food we had was when we sat down at a restaurant that had the menu in every language and included pictures. Our own fault. La Autigua Bodeguita was very fun and served delicious trendy tapas like mini hamburguesas. It's just a tiny stand up place where people spilled out into the Plaza del Salvador with their wine and beer.

Las Teresas is another very old school style tapas bar. Its got a great atmosphere for a sit down dinner. Highlights here were the whole grilled mushrooms (champion plancha), fantastically tender octopus (pulpo), and meaty tuna collar(morrillo de atún).

Vineria San Telmo was perfect for a little nicer and modern style tapas dinner. It is very popular so we strolled around the neighborhood, which is incredibly lively, during our 45 minute wait. An amazing oxtail in phyllo, queso fundito, and banoffe pie were standouts.

We also had dinner at the highly recommended Meson de la Infanta which was good but not excellent. The space however is very cool.

I loved everything about this city and will look forward to visiting it again some day!

All photos of Seville are here.
Jerez is also an easy day trip from here.