Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Cruising the French Riviera

Our ship left the quaint coastal towns of Italy and headed to the swankiness of the French Riviera. First up, Cannes!

The film festival had ended just days before so sadly, star-watching was out (15 years prior I had been in the city during the festival, which was eye-candy overdose!) but this city is a star all on its own. Slip upon slip of mega-yachts, gorgeous beaches, pricy boutiques, and opulent hotels line the main strip La Croisette.

We found a huge farmers market and happily wandered the stalls of unique offerings; vegetables, fish, olive oils, patés, bakery goods, etc. I think the best view into a city's culinary style is to check out the food markets, plus it's just damn fun to see so many unfamiliar items. And tasty.

After a quick rosé break down by the waterfront, we continued down La Croisette making our way to the famed Hotel InterContinental Carlton and took seats outside on the patio for drinks and snacks. Posh.

We shopped around town as we made our way back to the ship via tender. A quick clean up, a cheerful in-room happy hour, and we were back on the tender.
Most cruises have at least one full day at sea, but since all our destinations were fairly close together we left each of our port of calls in the evening and awoke each morning to a new gem. Two exceptions were overnights in Cannes and Monaco. We took advantage of the anchor and headed back into Cannes for an absolutely delicious dinner at Le Relais des Semailles in the charming old town.

We chose to spend our second day in Cannes on the ship, the entire day spent lounging in the sun. They opened the marina again so Dayne tried some stand-up paddle boarding. Later that afternoon DeLille presented a tasting class pitting DeLille wines again some Old World ones. It was just a really relaxing day topped off with a special dinner by Chef Moore, this one better than the first as he mentioned he also got to go shopping at Cannes' farmers market.


On day six we awoke in Saint-Tropez. Lauren and I had morning massages in the ship's spa and then we all took the tender to shore. We spent the morning ogling the luxury speed boats, exploring cobble-stoned lanes, and watching the red and white outfitted contestants of an annual regatta as they discussed strategy, or maybe rosé.
Lunch of moules mariniere was had along the marina in a restaurant with a slide-open ceiling, followed by gelato and more yacht shopping. We headed back to the ship to soak up some rays and take in the view of Saint-Tropez.


Our next port was Monaco where we had two days during the infamous Grand Prix. I wrote about our experience here.


Our nine day cruise finished up in Nice. It's cheezy to comment on how nice this was, right? Oh well.

We walked a short way from where we disembarked to the Hotel Suisse. Our room had a balcony with a fantastic view of the beach and the town, I only wished we had more days to enjoy it but we were just there for an overnight.

Nice is another city I had been to years ago and I was really excited to be there again. We started by exploring the flea market in Cours Saleya, it just happened to be Monday, the only day of the week it runs. It is a big market, filled with an assortment of antique silver, linens, paintings, dishes, etc.

Then after a delicious boulangerie breakfast we walked to the Musee Marc Chagall. I absolutely love Chagall and found this to be one of the most beautiful collections of his work I have ever seen. When in Nice I'd say this is a do-not-miss!

We headed back to Cours Saleya, many of the market stalls now packing up, and chose Le Quai Restaurant for a very good lunch.
That evening we had our last dinner at Luc Salsedo. It was the perfect end to our trip, delicious food that was regional and seasonal, a comfortable but not stuffy dining room, and great service.

We were up the next morning before the city fully awoke and had one last glimpse of the Mediterranean before catching our flight home. 

Photos from the French Riviera are here.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Cruising the Italian Coast

A few years ago we went on a cruise up the Italian coast to the French Riviera. If that sounds lovely it's because it was. We sailed on the Windstar Windsurf which, at least at that time, was the world's largest commercial yacht. Topping all off this goodness was that DeLille Cellars was the host so all of their wines were on-board, available, and included in our price. Unlimited wine. Score!

We boarded a charter bus in Rome and were taken to Civitavecchia Port about an hour and a half away.

The ship was absolutely beautiful.  While our luggage was being delivered to our rooms we got all checked in while sipping on complimentary mimosas.

I've been on 2 other cruises, both with the huge cruise lines, and was expecting the same sort of cramped and uninspiring lodgings, but this room was great! Really thoughtful set up, it used the space super efficiently. Even the bathroom was excellent. The 5-mast sailing vessel had approximately 300 passengers and 150 crew.

We sailed away from Rome's port, enjoying the festive bon voyage atmosphere, (and the free wine) outside on the deck even though some weird clouds threatened to dampen us and the mood.

The next morning, after having breakfast in bed, we met our friends Paul and Lauren and set off to explore our first port, Portoferraio, Elbe. It was an easy walk to the town center and we did a bit of exploring on the way to our destination- Napoleon's house during his exile on Elbe.

We walked up a street of stairs and peeked into a church halfway up, finding the alter inside to have some strange bones.Turns out they are the remains of San Cristino, the martyr patron saint of Portoferraio.
San Cristino, the martyr patron saint of Portoferraio - See more at: http://www.infoelba.com/island-of-elba/territory-history/places-to-see/churches-sanctuaries/misericordia-church/#sthash.cEuWyht6.dpuf
San Cristino, the martyr patron saint of Portoferraio - See more at: http://www.infoelba.com/island-of-elba/territory-history/places-to-see/churches-sanctuaries/misericordia-church/#sthash.cEuWyht6.dpuf

Napoleon's house was really nice but the gardens were gorgeous! Interesting plants and trees, pretty birds, stunning views of the deep blue sea, and warm sun made us think he didn't have it too hard during his stint here.

We did a bit of shopping and had lunch on the port before returning to the ship with plenty of time to get in some sunbathing. When our ship sailed, unfurling the five sails and cutting the engine, we had excellent seats (and wine) for views of the lush coastline.


We arrived the next morning in Portofino, our ship anchored outside of the tiny harbor. We took a tender in and were instantly charmed by this absolutely most picturesque of towns. Brightly colored buildings, boats ranging from super-yachts to individual fishing skiffs, and horseshoe shaped waterfront were almost too perfectly pretty. 

We walked the path up to the church and castle, stopping to peek at the cemetery with its gravestone markers containing photos of the deceased, like this handsome devil (did his family really want to remember him like this?)

Then we continued on the path heading around the point and back down, giving us spectacular views of the ocean, our ship at anchor, and taking us through a forest of really lovely trees, plants, and flowers.

We wandered along the main town and found seats waterside on the quiet arm of the harbor, at a great little shop/eatery. Champagne and amazing snacks, coupled with some gourmet food shopping, were just what I needed.

Back on board the ship we found they had the on-board marina open, the lower back of the boat opens and you can go water skiing, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, etc. Dayne and I chose to dive into the warm blue ocean for a little swim.

Each night we hosted an evening happy hour in our room, ordering a cheese tray, popcorn, or the like. There was actually enough room for the four of us to hang out comfortably. The rooms don't have balconies like on the big ships, but there are portholes letting in light and ocean views.

Before dinner one evening we took advantage of the open-bridge policy and headed up to check out all the navigation and instruments. The 2nd in command was really nice explaining everything to us and even let me drive (kidding!).

The ship has two restaurants and as part of the DeLille package they had Chef Bobby Moore on-board to provide 2 special dinners. Overall we didn't find any of the dinners, regular chef or Seattle chef, to be anything outstanding but meals were ok. And breakfasts and lunches were good. And of course there was wine ;)

We left the shores of Italy and continued into France...

Photos from the Italian part of the cruise here.



Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Driving the Amalfi Coast


We've all heard the stories about the highway along the Amalfi Coast, the hairpin turns, sheer cliffs, and skinny roads barely big enough for two Fiats side by side, never mind two buses. Let me just say that these stories do nothing to in fact prepare you for the true terror that the actual trip evokes.
Our bus inches by another bus

Dayne and I caught the bus in Sorrento and grabbed seats on the right side as all the guide books instruct. Normally Dayne always gets the aisle seat seeing as he is 6'6", but seeing that I have a insane fear of toppling over a cliff in a bus along the Amalfi Coast I tucked him next to the window with instructions to take photos as I knew I would spend half the ride with my eyes closed.

Everything you've heard is true. The scenery is lovely, when I did look. And the cliffs are sheer, the twists and turns dizzying, and the roads are indeed impossibly narrow. More than once our bus had to slow to a crawl to inch past the oncoming car. I think the bus is the perfect way to go, all of the show and none of the driving. Plus how could you look at anything other than the road if you were driving?

Our first stop was Positano, entirely built into a hill, they say you either are climbing or sliding when going anywhere here. The town has two bus stops, one at the top and the other at the bottom of the hill. We exited the bus at the second stop, the bottom one, and spent an hour or so wandering the town and the beach front.

And then we started to make our way up to the top, deciding to have lunch at a little pizza place we had read about, near the upper bus stop. Wow, what a climb this was! 500 steps up, past homes that seemed to be a part of the rock hill itself. Stopping along the way to admire the ocean views, the interesting lanes, the... who am I kidding? We stopped to catch our breath!!!

We finally made it to Il Saraceno d'Oro where we had a lovely lunch of wine and pizza (with an amazing sauce!) and then went on to the top bus stop which was literally on the side of the highway.

Next stop Amalfi, another adorable town with a busy center square, lovely shops, and pristine waterfront. Almalfi isn't thought of as hill-hugging as its neighbor but the locals here still know how to climb a rise! We sat for an Aperol Spritz and gelato and enjoyed the plaza. Our bus trip had been about 2 hours total.

We opted to take the ferry back to Sorrento, just 50 minutes and a chance to gaze at the gorgeous coast line. I think that was the perfect way to do the day; crazy road trip one way, relaxing boat ride the next.
Coming back into Serrento

Have you driven the Amalfi Coast?

All Almalfi Coast photos here.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Amsterdam Overnight

On our way home from Prague our flight had a stop in Amsterdam so we decided to take the opportunity to do an overnight in town, in order to catch up with our friends who graciously invited us over for a delicious dinner.

Dayne decided to book us into a different hotel this time and boy was it wonderful! The Hotel Estherea is small and very well situated. In fact, it is right next to the best bakery for stroopwaffles which I'm sure had something to do with Dayne choosing it. We took the train to the city from the airport for only 6.50 Euro each, in 15 minutes we were at the main station and easily grabbed a cab for the short distance to the hotel. As I went to check in, Dayne ran to the bakery and got there right before they closed, loading up on stroopwaffles to enjoy on our flight the next morning.

We didn't really get a chance to take full advantage of the hotel, of its lovely little bar and cozy library. Our bedroom was just fantastic with a balcony overlooking the row houses and a gorgeous marble bathroom.
The city still had some of its Christmas lights up and even with the cold drizzly weather, bikes still whizzed down the streets as if it were spring and not the dead of January.

Klary is a fantastic cook and both her and Dennis are accomplished travelers, so the evening was delicious, interesting and fun. We love catching up with them.

We had time for a good breakfast, which was included in our room rate, the next morning before grabbing a cab back to the main station and hopping on the train back out to Schiphol for our flight home. Next time hopefully we'll have a bit more time to spend in the city! And to spend in this hotel!
Amsterdam photos

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Drink It In; Central Europe

Central Europe may not be first on everyone's list with regard to cocktails but I had some great drinks in some very comfortable settings when we visited in December of 2013.

Strangely Bratislava has quite a number of places to get a finely mixed drink, we only stopped in at one but arguably it is one of the best.  Budapest, while a much larger city, is known more for its Ruin Bars but I found lovely cocktails elsewhere.

Many places were closed for the holidays when we visited Vienna so we only got out to one proper cocktail bar. Bar Halbestadt is a bit out of the way but the drinks are good and the owners are incredibly friendly. It's a funny little space with tiny tables, glowing soft red light, and glass walls looking out to the busy thoroughfare.

The owners also run a speakeasy which is just across the street. As there was a slight language barrier, I can't tell you its name or when it is open, I guess that is what a speakeasy is all about though now isn't it?

In Prague we had three great cocktail adventures. The first, Bar & Books, is an intimate lounge, dimly lit and just off the main square. We were happy to snag a small table with a window bench and stools.

Bar & Books started in New York and has a few locations around the world. The cocktails were quite good, I especially enjoyed my DYI Side Car, but the bar is known as a cigar bar so those affected by smoke be forwarned.

Just off to the side of Old Town Square is Black Angel's, an extremely cool place that unfortunately does not allow photos. After descending to the basement, we were seated in a small alcove space, lit mainly by the glow of the huge tropical fish tank along the wall. The drink menu was extensive and we all happily had a couple of rounds. The presentation on my Manhattan was especially creative, with the drink being kept cold in an antique mini milk bottle, chilled in a little ice bin with the glass and garnishes on a silver platter, ready for me to help myself.
Of course I stole a photo or two!
Prague's Hemingway Bar was another great find. We sat upstairs where there were big booths, perfect for our group of 6, but the 2-story lounge has bars on both levels. Obviously rum is the spirit of choice here but even gin based drinks got high marks.

We also stopped in at the Absintherie, part bar part Absinthe museum. Although they offered many cocktails (absinthe mule anyone?) made with the green fairy, we chose two very high end products off their list of over 50 and simply had them louched.

The bar is full of old advertisements, paraphernalia, and of course shelves of product, some very very good and some just gross - absinthe with a scorpion in the bottle!

More than cocktails, Central Europeans love their beer and you'll find beer houses all over the cities. In Vienna we had a few rounds, paired with some snacks, in the
old town at Gösser Bierklinik. The pub felt subterranean and medieval, lots of folks toasting with the house ales and enjoying rollicking conversations. It was also pretty smoky in a few designated areas since smoking is still allowed in this part of Europe.


Prague is no stranger to beer halls of course, and we went to one of the best known ones for dinner one evening. Golden Tiger has been around forever and attracts locals and tourists alike.

We crowded into a shared picnic style table and immediately beers appeared in front of us. We learned quickly that if you didn't cover your glass with a coaster beer would be delivered each time you got near the bottom of your current pint. There were no menus, the beer served was Tiger, and the waiter just kept adding tally marks to our check similar to how they do it at a dim sum restaurant.

Dinner was basic pub fare, hearty enough to help soak up all that beer. The only people not having a great time were the tourists who showed up 5 minutes after the kitchen had closed.

Kedves egeszsegere! Na zdravie! Prosit! Na zdraví! Cheers!


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Monday, March 3, 2014

Prague, Czech It Out

Prague has always been high on my list of places to visit. It has always sounded romantic, beautiful, a bit mysterious, and until recently very inexpensive.

When we left for Prague, our last stop on our 5 city Central Europe trip in January 2013, I was absolutely thrilled to be heading to the Czech Republic. But by the time we left, my rose colored glasses had been removed. The city is beautiful for sure, but even in cold, drizzly winter it was teeming with more tourists than I had experienced even in the high season in Paris.

We arrived at night, after a 5 hour train ride from Vienna, and were picked up by the company we had rented our apartment from. Our flat was perfectly located just a few steps from the Old Town Square, great for sightseeing, not so great for dealing with the crowds of tourists.

After the six of us laid claim to bedrooms we headed out in search of a cocktail and a bite to eat. Passing through the square we were all struck by how absolutely lovely it was. The Christmas market was still in full swing and a massive Christmas tree kept watch over all the vendors. The famed clock tower looked straight out of "Harry Potter".

Each morning we would grab these delicious cinnamon style rolls from one of the stalls at the Christmas market and a coffee from the Starbucks also located there. East meets west.

On our first full day we strolled around the winding medieval streets, bombarded by t-shirt shops and money exchange outlets. We settled on a traditional looking restaurant for lunch and were started off with shots of Becherovka said to encourage the appetite. Czech beer, fried cheese, and goulash followed. Diet food this is not.

We then gathered in front of the Astronomical Clock in time to watch it perform on the hour, along with about 1000 others. This was where we were meeting up with a free walking tour, which we thought would be the best way for us to see the most in our 2 short days in town.

Our guide ended up being more interested in telling everyone the pitfalls of exchanging money on the streets with strangers (wtf??) than explaining much about the buildings and history of Prague. As it was cold and rainy and we were all a bit bored with his lectures, we ditched the tour half way through and walked ourselves around a bit before returning to the Old Square where the crowds had gathered again, and the clock was doing it's thing.

The next morning Dayne, Caitlin and I set out to the Jewish Quarter, a small area consisting of the remaining Jewish buildings and archives that the Jews were allowed to keep here, the other Jewish neighborhoods were razed during WWII. Our first stop was the Old New  Synagogue where all men were asked to don a yarmulke before entering.

We walked to the Ceremonial Hall from here, a 2-story building with many displays of Jewish relics and peek-a-boo views of the neighboring cemetery.

The Jewish Cemetery is the small, fenced off burial grounds of thousands. Confined to such a small plot of land, the graves are overlapping and stacked on top of each other. Markers sit haphazardly, decaying, many of their engravings barely legible. It's a maze, a sea of the deceased. It's astonishing.

Next was the 2-story Klaus  Synagogue. Here there were more exhibits including some showing common life rituals.

Our last stop was the Spanish Synagogue named for its style, also housing hundreds of displays of artifacts and a treasure trove of photographs from the time during the Nazi occupation. 

We met up with Forest and Thibault for lunch at one of the restaurants our airport driver had recommended to us, Restaurant Mlejnice. Dayne and Thibault both ordered the pork shank which was possibly the largest thing I have ever witnessed someone eat.

The six of us regrouped after lunch and walked over the beautiful bridge and then up to the storybook castle on the hill. Again, even with the rain, gloom, and cold the bridge was person to person tourists. Unfortunately by the time we arrived at the castle both it and the cathedral were closing for the day but we did encounter the dapper guard detail as they marched around the castle square and even harassed a poor lone guard in charge of the Christmas tree.

After admiring the views from the hill we made our way down and back across the now dark bridge. Failing to get into the other recommended restaurant of our choice we all grabbed hot grilled sausages and fresh fried chips from the vendors in the Christmas market and made the short walk back to our apartment to have dinner.

The Christmas market would be our final meal the next day as Dayne and I cobbled together the last of our Czech crowns and bought as many grams of roasted 'Prague Ham' as we could. Elbowing our way past the square of tourists, we walked to our apartment and devoured the hot and delicious plate of pork and bread.
Prague photos here.

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