San Diego

They say when your eyes are opened to the truth, you can never not see it. That’s how I’ve felt about air travel ever since my family somehow ended up in the business class cabin on a flight to Barcelona while the aches and pains from being wedged into economy class from Paris were still aching and paining. My new mission on all trips is to get upgraded seats, whether by booking way in advance, trading in points on our credit card reward programs, or postulating about my grave concerns about the health of cattle car travel. I argued that if we flew first class, we could extend our spring break trip and spend Easter day in California, figuring that if we had more room and reclining seats, the kids could sleep on a red eye and not miss school on Easter Monday. So we splurged on United First Class. Of course, the evil eye of vague travel headaches followed me, and after extolling the virtues of how much more relaxed and refreshed we’d feel in the premier cabin—-no blankets, no pillows, and I’m guessing it was our flight attendant’s first time running first class. After lunch, she never came back down the aisle to see if anyone wanted drink refills or coffee. Passengers tracked her down in the galley to get more soda or water, and when she passed out the little sweet treat before landing, no coffee or tea was offered .I know I’ve seen flight attendants more on a two-hour flight in coach to Orlando than I saw ours during our cross-country flight.

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The San Diego airport is stunning to fly into, as it sits on the bay with the city as its backdrop. The taxi stand is right out side the door from baggage claim and no wait at all to get two taxis (5 people and we brought a lot of luggage—note to self, just because you CAN bring two bags for free, doesn’t mean you need to…) and headed to our hotel.

The Hotel Del Coronado, built in 1888, is under renovation. Our suite had a beautiful view of the ocean and the new sea-to-table restaurant under construction.

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The view below the balcony of our ocean-front suite

Rooms are also being refurbished and the construction starts EARLY. But then, so did the hallway noise. Every day we were there, people in the hall were raising a ruckus between 6 and 6:30 am. It was the noise level I usually hear at a Hampton Inn on a tournament weekend when I have the misfortune of being on the same floor as the travel team with the 8am game. We may have heard them so well because our bed was practically in the hall. Processed with VSCO with av4 preset  The renovation is desperately needed. Our bed had lumps and valleys, and the bath with its pedestal sink and shower/tub combo was a shock from the typical walk-in shower of the spa-inspired bathrooms of newer luxury  hotels,. They added a curved shower rod which did a great job of making the shower feel less claustrophobic, but the bathroom really needed some kind of vanity for getting ready.. My choices for my blowdryer were the bathroom, where the only place to put down the dryer was the sink, or in the sitting room in front of the distressed mirror, but I still didn’t have a place to rest the dryer. The magnifying vanity mirror was kept in the closet because I guess they couldn’t find anywhere to put anything in the bathroom either..

We made it down to the beach bar overlooking the ocean where we had the best guacamole and drinks(rocking Cosmopolitan). They came around a lit the fireplaces and it was a quintessential West Coast spring evening on the beach. We ordered pizzas to go from Eno and a bottle of wine. The Caesar salad with whole leafs of Romaine and very tasty dressing was a great starter.

Tuesday morning we ate breakfast at the hotel with our HiltonHonors vouchers and decided to add the hot breakfast option for an additional $20 each. The quinoa and mixed vegetables were quite good, and the rest of the hot items like scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, were typical breakfast buffet fare. We also tried the custom orders of eggs benedict, and tasted the traditional and a southwest version. They were tasty, but it  took quite a bit of time for them to come out to the table and we didn’t order them again.

Today was our San Diego coastal tour with Another Side of San Diego (https://anothersideofsandiegotours.com/private-san-diego-tours/. ) We were picked up by our driver/tour guide at the hotel by a Mercedes Sprinter van which had plenty of room, cold water, and snacks!

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great view from the van, or is it just everywhere in San Diego has a great view

We had a drive around Coronado, past the Navy SEALs obstacle course, drove up to Mt Soledad National Veterans Memorial, and on to Torrey Pines and stopped on our way back–desperately searching for clean restrooms. My husband was also curious if there was any chance of getting on the South Course, so we stopped by the Torrey Pines lodge in search of the Pro shop (and found clean restrooms!) And my husband learned that since the South Course is under renovation with two holes closed, it would be easy for a single to jump on.

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View from Mt. Soledad

My favorite stop of the day was at La Jolla beach. Dozens of sea lions swim in the water and sun themselves on the rocks. They are pretty smelly, but I could watch them play and swim all day.

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I would move to La Jolla just to walk down to the beach and hang with the sea lions every day

Despite the smell, we were hungry and our tour guide helped us find some tacos and the biggest cheese quesadilla we’ve ever seen at a little chain taco shop called Rigoberto’s. I was a little taken aback that my fish tacos were breaded and fried with tartar sauce on the tortilla, but extra points that my daughter’s cheese quesadilla was just cheese and tortilla, which, believe it or not, is much harder to get than it sounds. We headed onward to Mission Beach and Pacific Beach and stopped by Crystal Pier and debated the merits of staying over the ocean.

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Crystal Pier extends over the Pacific and adorable cabins are available to rent right on the pier!

We drove through the Gaslamp district and saw the Padres’ home field, but it didn’t make our “must return-to list” because it seemed like mostly chain restaurants and bars. The tour was a great way to get introduced to a city. We had only been to San Diego for a couple of nights before a field hockey tournament in Palm Springs several years ago, and hadn’t seen anything other than the Del and the San Diego Zoo. Our tour guide/driver was knowledgeable about the geography and history and amenable to impromptu stops (like Torrey Pines golf lodge and the taco shop!)

 

Back in Coronado, we decided to make the trek to Park Place Liquor and Deli. It carried beer, wine, liquor, and snacks. While prices were way better than the hotel, they wines were marked up about $5-$10 bottle more than typical metro DC retail prices. Based on a couple of recommendations, we ate dinner at Brigantine at the Orange Avenue location. By far the best thing about the restaurant was that another table on the patio had three dogs with them.

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The dogs of San Diego are a real treat!

We ordered the haddock special and the T-bone special and neither were very special. I ordered my steak medium rare and it came out with barely any pink. My husband finally flagged down a waiter to ask for some hot sauce to try to punch up the flavor of his dish. We couldn’t find a bottle of wine that piqued our interest, but our waiter recommended their highlighted winery Michael David. I went with the 6th Sense Syrah and my husband had the Freakshow Cabernet Sauvignon.

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The Michael David wine was the standout from our meal! I’ll def try to run some down on the east coast.

They were both great, but, alas, we never got a chance to order a second glass. My kids didn’t fare much better with $15 sandwiches from the little deli shop in the Del.

 

Wednesday my husband got to return to Torrey Pines for his round of golf and my girls and I hung around Coronado. We walked down Orange Avenue to the Juice Crafters and picked up a green juice, berry-based juices, and a Flu Off shot for my daughter who was feeling under the weather. The juices were great, but the Flu Off shot tasted so awful my daughter spit out the first sip and we never got to see if it worked. Orange Avenue in Coronado is filled with souvenir shops, women’s and children’s clothing stores, and lots of restaurants. Seaside Papery (http://www.seasidepapery.com) was our favorite little store—lots of paper products, obviously, but also books, trinkets, and some home decor. We ended up with pencils, sealing waxes and stamps. After a challenging 16 holes at Torrey Pines, my husband rejoined us and we headed to The Tavern for dinner.

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View from street level, but the restaurant is down a short flight of stairs.

Processed with VSCO with av4 presetWe started with the mac and cheese starter and it was awesome! My kids split the ribs and said they weren’t very flavorful, which was my husband’s assessment of his fish tacos. He also ordered the roasted brussel sprouts which had a flavor profile through the roof and just delicious . I had the burger and it was really tasty. The wine list was pretty limited, but we ordered the Justin Cab and were able to cork it and take it back to our hotel to finish on the balcony.

 

Thursday

Even though it didn’t have any sea lions, Thursday was my favorite day. We had rented a beach cabana and headed to beach right after breakfast. It was sunny, but cooler and the water was about 60 degrees, so it was more of beach-as-a-backdrop than a splash-in-the-surf day. With an attentive waiter and endless sunshine, we spent the day reading, playing paddle ball, and waiting for my oldest daughter to arrive from New York. One of the best dishes we had in San Diego was the surf and turf tacos from the Beach and Taco Shack on the property—carne asada and shrimp never tasted so good.Processed with VSCO with av4 preset My oldest arrived in time to enjoy a couple of hours of afternoon sun and a bottle of rosé.  For dinner, we called ahead to get reservations at Chez Loma, a french restaurant just a few blocks from the hotel. Solid French food in an intimate setting, and we were the last in the restaurant and never felt pressured to turn over the table or felt hurried out the door.

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This was a great place for a family dinner—you know the kind where everyone is so busy talking, laughing, and eating that you don’t take any pictures…Sort of like 1992.

 

Friday

Friday we headed over to Balboa Park to visit the museums. We walked through the botanical gardens which made me anxious to go home and buy every plant ever. Then we toured the Timken Museum of Art, and were wowed by its collection of old masters and Russian Icons–as an added plus, admission is free! The San Diego Museum of Art was our next stop. The admission is $15 and we like seeing Georgia O’Keefe and the exhibit “The Art of Devotion.” We hiked some trails and then Ubered back to Coronado for lunch. One of our cheapest meals in San Diego was a couple of pizzas the the Village Pizzeria on Orange Avenue. Five thumbs up for the crispy pepperoni that we got on our pizza.

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Pizza and chianti—-was there ever a better pair?

Our adventure for the evening was a sailing tour of San Diego Bay (https://sandiegosailingtours.com), snacks, soft drinks, beer, and white wine (red wine stains the boat!) are provided and so is a turn to steer the boat!  I love being on the water and we got to see some more sea lions on the buoys, docks, and swimming in the bay, but you don’t venture to anywhere more picturesque because the sunset sail is only about two hours. I really enjoyed it, but my husband would have preferred getting out of what felt like a commercial sea lane. Maybe next time we would book a half-day or full-day cruise to get along the coast.

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Saturday

Saturday was our chance to return to the places that piqued our interest on Tuesday’s coastal tour. We hiked for a couple of hours at Torrey Pines and were stunned by the breathtaking views and the crowds.

After a 10-15 minute wait, we then caught an Uber to Del Mar to hit a restaurant recommended to us by a friend that used to live in San Diego. Pacifica Del Mar, despite being knocked by our Uber driver who arrogantly advised us to talk to people other than our hotel concierge for restaurant recommendations, was a great place for lunch. We started with the baked oysters—oysters topped with cheese–and I had a delicious, juicy grass-fed burger.

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We had wine by the glass because the three of us drinking couldn’t agree on one, and it was great. We caught another Uber to La Jolla to revisit my sea lions and explore the main drag a little bit. There was one gelato joint right by the beach which had a line down the block, but we crossed the street and had what I thought was pretty darn tasty gelato with only a wait of a few minutes.

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Salted caramel and a view

Another Uber back to the Del and we were ready for our movie night on the beach. I’ll admit I was reluctant to book the event, but my two younger kids(but still high=school-aged) were sold on “Scooby Doo” on the beach. I chose the Family Movie Package which comes with a daybed (like we had for our beach day), two sand chairs, a private fire pit, and s’mores for four and a $300 price tag.

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The view from the sand chair by the fire pit toward the inflatable screen

We were allowed to bring drinks from the beach bar, which was doing last call, and paid highway robbery prices for the soft drinks ($6) and most outrageously, the little bags of chips you put in your kid’s lunch were $6 too! But, our attendant did a great job tending our fire pit and checking on us throughout the movie. Anyway, that evening ended up being tons of fun and sitting at a fire pit on the beach watching a movie will be one of our fondest memories.

Sunday

Easter Sunday. In the past, our kids have demanded that we come home from spring break early enough to spend Easter at home, but we decided to spend Easter at The Del and fly home on the red eye. Live and learn. At 7am we were awoken by protesters from the service sector of the hotel marching on the beach side of the hotel, demanding fair treatment from the Del. In truth it made me uncomfortable to realize I was staying at a hotel with unhappy employees.

I reserved a table at the famous Easter brunch at the Del, a little sticker shocked from the cost — for 5 people, including tax and gratuity, it was $890!!! For brunch! I kept thinking that would be a lot of waffles and mimosas, but the the buffet promised to be legendary. It was a little bit of a madhouse checking in, but 5 or 10 minutes after our scheduled seating the five of us were shown to our table—-a tabletop for four with another place setting crammed in.Processed with VSCO with av4 preset Our server had to take away our coffee cups and saucers so we could sort of fit our plates. Then we ordered a bottle of wine a la cart and we had nowhere to put the bottle and our glasses. My husband asked to move an empty table next to us so we could have enough table space for our plates and glasses.

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Finally enough room!

The buffet had carving stations, seafood towers, a poké bowl and ramen noodle stations, hot and cold side dishes, a lot of dessert stations, including cotton candy. Like most buffets that try to make that much food for so many people, the scale was dramatic, but taste was average. The poké bowls were a standout, however, probably because the bowl doesn’t need to be prepared beforehand.

 

I had rented a pool cabana for somewhere to relax after brunch until it was time to head to the airport. It was quite chilly, so we elected not to swim and hung out in the cabana with the  outdoor sofa. For $250 we had use of the cabana, a fridge stocked with soft drinks, some goldfish and pop chips for snacks, and a fruit plate.

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Seats at the San Diego airport have drink holders and outlets! #goals

 

The cabin crew for our flight home was amazing—attentive, yet unobtrusive during the overnight hours, but the seats didn’t recline again and the kids bargained for a day off from school. My first class manifesto was dinged by the inattention on the Dulles-San Diego leg and the seats that didn’t fully recline on either leg, but it was nice to have leg room.

This is the first family trip where we didn’t rent a car. We took taxis from the airport, and used Uber throughout the trip and it worked out great! The longest wait for an Uber to show up was at Torrey Pines State Reserve and we waited about 15 minutes. The scenery driving around San Diego is spectacular and with Uber, my husband (the usual driver) was able to enjoy the sights, too. Not to mention, our drivers were almost always helpful with things to see and do.

minibar and me

We’ve been trying to get a table at minibar by Jose Andres, not really hard, just jumping on the website when we thought about it and then having our hopes dashed three months at a time. I think my husband must have stumbled upon a cancellation because he snagged a table just a few weeks out from our reservation. We chose the bespoke wine pairings with dinner, making the wise decision to spend the night in DC.

We walked to dinner and right past the restaurant. Its signage is as (mini)mal as the logo, but luckily I noticed the detached car door with the sign for valet on the sidewalk as we turned in confusion as Siri announced we had arrived. We found the door and the personalized and attentive service began. Our coats were whisked away, and we were seated by the fireplace with a nice pour of 2006 Dom Perignon and olives—delicious, but the meaty texture of an olive was transformed into thin-walled, gelatinous glob. Two thumbs up for the taste, but that texture is the stuff my nightmares are made of. Oliver, the head sommelier, asked us some questions about what our wine preferences were and we were seated at the table.

I say “the table” because it was the only table in the restaurant. The other patrons sit at a U-shaped bar and the first seating had already begun its tasting menu. A later, second seating was served and we finished at about the same time.

The presentation and food craftsmanship was unparalleled. A specialty cocktail–matcha and gin mare –was served for the first two bites and I still haven’t met a gin drink I didn’t like.

The first tableside pour was a 2007 Domaine William Fevre Vallons Premier Cru (Chablis, France)with a banh mi stuffed with crab and an apple meringue “bun”. The crab was amazing and the meringue bun provided the perfect counterpoint of sweetness and crunch, but the meringue left a weird tacky film on my teeth. The wine was spot on for the course.

The next pour was a 2013 Alphonse Mellot Generation Dix-Neuf Sancerre to go with a Parmesan “Danish” but the stars of the bite were the exceedingly generous shavings of black truffle.  The next dish was a snail caviar served in a shell and was brought to the table with a sprig of herbs which were lighted and then blown out tableside. It was like smudging for fine dining.

I’m not sure if it was because we said were partial to Napa or it is always on the wine rotation, but Oliver, who became my favorite sommelier of all time, brought us a pour of 2011 Shafer Hillside Select (Stags Leap District, Napa Valley, USA). I’m learning that I really like some minerality in my Cabs and to me, that keeps cabs from tasting like cherry bombs, and Hillside Select is the perfect Cab.

The next bottle was our least favorite, 1991 Chateau Musar Blanc (Bekaa Valley, Lebanon). Oliver explained that the funk in the wine would balance the gaminess of the following bites. I love doing wine pairings like this even when I end up not caring for the wine because it teaches me in concrete terms what tastes are in the wine and what tastes in the food the wine profile is complementing. For us, the wine stayed pretty funky, but rather than visceral descriptions from tasting notes, we had the opportunity to experience them. Once is all it will take for us on that one.

We moved on to a 2007 Bodegas Y Vinedos Tinto Valbuena Ribero del Duero, and perhaps because my husband had specifically mentioned that I did not care for tempranillo, it was followed closely by a glass for me of 1996 Domaine Michel Gaunoux Corton Renardes Grand Cru (Burgundy, France).

We then had Kikusul Kuramitsu Junmai Daiginjo sake which was quite good, and then a 1990 Chateau Latour Bordeaux.

In deference to my husband’s desire to taste the Latour after it opened some more, Oliver poured us a third glass that we let open throughout the rest of the dinner and would come back to for smells and sips. I admit that I am the worst person for appreciating the nose, but my husband was in raptures as he felt he learned what is really meant by bouquet.

As we wound down through the dessert courses, we had a 2013 Royal Taokaji ‘6 Puttonyos’ (Tokaji, Hungary) that was amazing and another first for us and then a 1937 d’Oliveira Sercial (Madeira, Portugal), which reminded me of Port than Madeira.(Needless to say, the wine selection floored us!)

 

For wine neophytes like us, the 96 Burgundy and 90 Latour Bordeaux were our introduction to first-growth wines and the great houses and left me more conflicted than the Targaryan family history. On one hand, both wines were drinkable at first pour from the Coravin and blossomed and changed in the glass over a couple of courses. No doubt about it, they were excellent and if I would not ever decline a glass in the future. But…both the grand crus retail for about $1200 and Hillside Select retails for around $225, so my conundrum is, “is the Latour Bordeaux five times better than Hillside Select and is it ten times better than my favorite supermarket Bordeaux?” We could play this game with all wines and price points, but for me it comes down to what wine did I like better. Of course, I’m a little starry-eyed drinking grand crus (two in one night!), but I think if the wines were at an even price point, I would go for the Shafer. Intellectually I get that a Bordeaux or Burgundy and a Cab are very different wines, but with my taste buds and pocketbook, I would want the Hillside Select. While I want to keep trying wines and learning more, I’ve started to accept that maybe I will never appreciate the nuances of aged Burgundy and my tastes are for the bolder rock ‘em-sock’em Napa cabs.

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Nashville in 36 hours; not including canceled flights and delays

Here’s the story of how I stumbled onto one of the greatest country concerts and a bittersweet trip down memory lane. While listening to the radio in the car, I heard a Spectrum deejay mention something about a tribute concert to Willie Nelson in Nashville over the coming weekend. My dad loved Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Charlie Pride, and Freddie Fender. The country station was on in the car and we drove… a lot. Consequently, I heard country music for hours on end traveling and, yeah, by the time I hit my early teens, my dad got to hear me complain about his music for an equal amount of time. Until Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson (Thank you, SNL!), I hadn’t listened to county music since I got my first Walkman, but the country music of the seventies was the soundtrack of my childhood. The memories that the music stirs are of my dad at his prime, when he, like all dads I think, seemed larger than life. The last five or so years of his life were a constant, ever-downward fight against COPD and in between taking him to doctor appointments and the soul-crushing bedside vigil during hospice, I had kind of forgotten how vital and vibrant he had been. Willie Nelson is 85, my dad would have been 84, and I really wanted the chance to see my dad’s favorite singer in concert.

The starts aligned—our biggest weekend plans-buster is the kids’ tournaments and this weekend was the only one without a tournament on the schedule. Add to that our sophomore in college was still home from winter break to mind the house and keep the zoo in line. And, as I reminded my husband, the thirtieth (gulp) anniversary of when we met would be the next weekend and we would be in different states at tournaments (because that is our usual weekend.) So we went to Ticketmaster for resale seats, booked a flight, and a hotel. The only hiccup in our plan was the delivery of the dryer my husband had gotten for himself, because there is no way he has such little sense of self-preservation that he would have admitted to getting me a dryer for Christmas. It was dicey when our delivery slot was 11am-3pm and we had to leave for the airport by 2:30. I walked around the house on Friday morning putting such things into the Universe like, “gosh, I hope our dryer doesn’t come soon,” because, inevitably, our deliveries come at whatever part of the delivery window that is most inconvenient or impossible to meet. Amazingly, our new dryer was installed and ready to go by noon and we had a nice lunch and headed to Music City.

 

A taxi from the airport to downtown is a flat $25, and we decided to jump right into a waiting cab rather than join the long queue of people waiting to meet their Uber or Lyft drivers in one of several locations. We arrived at the Hermitage Hotel and the hotel is beautiful, a nice combination of historical preservation and updated amenities. The lobby is a great place to lounge and take in the ambience with a fireplace, comfortable seating, and tables. We read the paper with coffee while we waited for housekeeping to finish in our room one morning, and after the concert, we and some of other concert-goers had a night cap near the veranda.

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The wingback chairs and fireplace are a great spot!

Unlike some other historical hotels, the rooms and marble bathrooms are spacious, including double sink vanities, separate water closet, soaking tub, and separate shower. There are Molton Brown bathroom amenities, robes, slippers, and turndown service with bottled water and cookies. There is a Nespresso machine for coffee, but only powdered creamer-yuck! There was also a mini bar, but I didn’t check it out. What I did check out, however, was the pillow menu! On the shelf in the closet there were 3 pillows to try—buckwheat, memory foam, and, I think latex. There were down pillows on the bed, which had lovely Frette linens on a locally-made mattress. I used a combo of buckwheat, memory foam, and the down pillow.

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The view of the Tennessee state capitol from our hotel room

Our intent as we headed out early Friday evening was to hit Broadway, the main strip of honky tonks. Sometimes we struggle reading maps. Despite the help of both Apple Maps and Google Maps, we missed Broadway, but ended up in Printer’s Alley. We could hear a great band playing at the Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie bar and ducked in to check it out.

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Like everywhere we went in Nashville, there was no cover charge. We sat at the bar and listened to original songs by Jon Roniger and The Good for Nothing Band. Their style is bluesy jazz (I sort of made that up) with a great stage presence and some salty interaction with the audience. Tip: The band will not play Bruce Springsteen because they did not write any Bruce Springsteen, no matter how many times the bachelor party guys in the back request it. At the bar we started with old fashioneds and then had beer. From the kitchen we ordered fries and sweet and spicy “voodoo” chicken, and it was solid bar food.

After tipping the band, we headed out to try once again to find Broadway (apparently whisky helps our navigation skills) and Robert’s Western World. It was packed! We ended up drinking jack and Cokes because we couldn’t get near the main bar and they had set up a satellite cash-only bar with liquor and mixers. Drinks were $9, but tasted like he forgot the Coke. Robert’s, famous for its fried bologna sandwich and a strange adulation for Pabst Blue Ribbon, is a great place for music! The Don Kelley Band, a mainstay at Robert’s, played the kind of country my dad listened to—songs by and about hard-drinking, heartbroken men. A member of the band came through the crowd after every set for tips, and they were worth every penny.

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We started Saturday with breakfast at the Capital Grill in our hotel. They have a tasty Southern Benedict with fried green tomatoes and pork belly instead of an English muffin and Canadian ham. I thought I owed my liver an apology so I ordered the green juice—highly recommend it!

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While the honky tonks open at 11am with live music, we need a little more dry time and visited the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum. You can visit the museum or the museum and and RCA Studio B. We chose to skip the studio tour, and walked through just the museum. The museum had a lot of outfits, and lots and lots of rhinestones, and instruments. We really enjoyed the special exhibit, “Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring 70’s.” Not only was it the music familiar, but I find it fascinating to have the bits and pieces of childhood memories put into a greater historical context. Then I find it disconcerting that things I remember from my childhood are old enough to be in a museum.

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Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge

After the museum, we found Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Even though it was afternoon, the place was packed! Like at Robert’s the night before, it was standing room only, but the music was great. The tip bucket came around and for a $20 tip the band played my request of “Luckenback, Texas.” We headed back to the hotel to get ready for the concert.

 

As a last-minute add-on (way to go Ticketmaster marketing department!) we upgraded our tickets to include the Lexus Lounge at the Bridgestone Arena, mostly because we had never been to the venue and wanted the night to be as stress-free as possible. And we only had to pay for the two of us—usually we never upgrade because it is always price x 6 for our entire family and it is too expensive. With the Lexus Lounge ticket, we had a separate, crowd-free entrance, we breezed through security (we had to wait just long enough for the two men in front of us to cannonball a mini bottle of vodka before going through security to get the the free bar….), and access to a buffet and open bar throughout the event. The buffet was fine (for buffet food) and we certainly did not drink  enough to justify even one of the tickets, but it was awesome not to have to wait in any security lines and the hosts on the floor of the lounge were full of helpful advice for us as far as navigating the arena: they advised taking two drinks at a time when you visited the bar so we wouldn’t have to run back and forth during the show. I thought it was a joke, but then I realized everyone really did do that!

We headed to our seats and got an education on how they tape a live show for later broadcast. We were instructed to stand up and clap enthusiastically, then sit politely and clap enthusiastically.  I think everyone was taken aback when suddenly Chris Stapleton burst into Whiskey River— there was a moment when the crowd was like, “what? we’re starting?!?”

Lee Ann Womack sang next without introduction, and luckily for us, we were sitting next to a bonafide country music lover and scholar. He kept us informed about the performer, their most interesting fact and the last place he saw them in concert, which we then passed down the row. The hosts got better at announcing who was taking the stage next and it was one thrilling performance and surprise guest after another. Jayme Johnson brought the house down with “Georgia on My Mind” and for me, Sturgill Simpson’s appearance was a thrill. The concert will be broadcast sometime in 2019 on A & E and it’s worth your time.

Sunday morning was planned for another leisurely breakfast at the Capital Grill and a trip to the airport. We took an Uber to the airport and it was speedy and convenient. With the government shutdown and mass call-outs by TSA, we left early to allow extra time through security, but the Nashville airport security lines moved super quickly. My husband wanted a quiet spot to work, so we sent a couple of gates over from our departure gate. At boarding time, we headed to our gate, only to see the next departure on the board and a snaking line from the gate counter. After a panic attack that we had missed our flight’s boarding, we learned that no, even worse, all flights into Dulles had been canceled for the day. By the time I logged into my United app, the only flight with seats available was late Monday afternoon. We briefly debated switching airlines to fly into Reagan National, but worried that that flight would end up cancelling as well and then all the United flights would have been totally booked on Monday and we wouldn’t be able to get until Tuesday. Plus, if it was really snowing that hard at home, would we be able to get a ride share or taxi to take us from one airport to the other to get our car. So we headed back to the Hermitage Hotel. If you are ever in Nashville on the spur of the moment, the Hermitage has a “last-minute” rate whenever they still have rooms available. Luckily, we were able to check in early and then returned to Broadway.

We roamed the entire avenue, almost to the river, and found Acme Feed & Seed for lunch and to listen to music. We both had the Rule the Roost fried chicken sandwich with aioli and fries.

It was flavorful, but definitely not too spicy—I’m pretty sure Chick-fil-A has a spicier chicken sandwich, but it was our least favorite place for music. I get that it was a mellow Sunday afternoon, but the music was definitely more dirgeful hipster than honky tonk or toe-tapping anything. We crossed the street to the river, and then headed back up  Broadway and stopped at AJ’s (Alan Jackson’s bar). I didn’t realize it was a celebrity bar because my dad only listened to the old-timers and I can only name a handful of country musicians it from this century. Anna LaPrad was on stage and she performed a nice mix of original songs and requests. I realize that all the bars on Broadway cater to tourists and purists are snickering at me even calling them honky tonks, but this bar, with good music and very attentive bartenders, just felt like it could have been anywhere. The decor was a Disney-curated expression of what a country bar/honky tonk, that had been cleaned up to not offend a soul, would look like.

 

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Soulless–and if you need a sign saying it’s a honky tonk, maybe it’s not

 

We returned to Robert’s Western World and were treated to a country music education by Nashville Skyline. They did old, old country, outlaw country, and some blues and rock and roll. We had a great time listening to music and noshing on some onion rings. I gave up on the Jack and Cokes and beers. I don’t drink a lot of soda or beers and the carbonation was killing me. So I owned my out-of-town-wine-drinking-can’t-shoot-whiskey-self and ordered whatever red wine they served at Robert’s. We planned to stay to listen to the Don Kelley band come on at 10pm. Alas, with the bathroom closed for repairs, they had to close the bar early.

 

With our early evening flight, we were fortunate to get a late check-out and my husband worked remotely and I refereed a who-drank-the-last-of-the-almond-milk melee at home by text.  After a room service breakfast of oatmeal and fruit, we had lunch in the Oak Bar at the hotel. It was certainly convenient, and our beef sandwiches were good, but I wouldn’t say it would be a special trip to the hotel for a late lunch. We headed to the airport early, once again breezed through security, and found an empty gate with an outlet so my husband could work. And waited through a few delays until our plane pulled into the gate. And we boarded as soon as the last  passenger got off the plane. I figured we had 20 or 30 minutes while they cleaned the plane, but, nope, they started boarding immediately. It turns out the pilot was trying to catch a flight back home at Dulles. We then had the fastest taxiing to our runway, at one point, I swear the plane leaned into the turn. But I wasn’t going to complain. I was ready to go home.

 

I think two nights of honky tonking are plenty. Friday night and Saturday were fun and exciting, and we did have a good time on Sunday, but with the sleet, drizzle, and windy cold weather, it was too miserable to spend any time outside exploring.  I had hit my limit of bar time and somebody had to go get more almond milk.

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It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Less Christmas, part 4

Even though I’m streamlining the holiday decorating, our family room still gets a lot of attention. It’s where our now solo tree stands and where we’ll hang out to watch movies or hockey. I fell in love with bottle brush trees a couple of years ago and when I updated the mantle from a traditional motif with topiary stocking hangars draped in greenery, ribbon, lights and whatever else I could cram on the tiny space, I knew that the bottle brush trees were just what I wanted–something fun and light-hearted. The stuffed reindeer head is my favorite piece and I’ve been adding pom pom garlands instead of greenery (and no debris to sweep up on the daily!) to keep the vibe irreverent. Even though my kids are teenagers and young adults, I still like the cheeky Santa sign to remind them they better watch out. I pulled our red leather recliner in on the action with a white throw I stole from one of the bedrooms and a black belt for a nod to the jolly old elf. I kept their stockings for sentimental reasons, and, per request, we still decorate the tree with the ornaments accumulated one-by-one over the last twenty-eight years.

I obviously do not have a compulsion about correctly placed ornaments. My only rule is that anything that remotely looks like it has stuffing has to be placed above the dog’s snout reach. Also, our tree has a light that won’t light, so I think next year we’re going to have to supplement our pre-lit tree with a few extra strands of lights.Processed with VSCO with av4 preset

This is why I will always love Christmas decorating. There’s a sparkly reindeer made from one of my kid’s tiny hands, a salt-dough ornament personalized from our first Christmas with four, an engraved ornament from the year my husband and I married, a horn decorated by the kids’ great grandma, and George Washington from a family visit to Mount Vernon (and placed where Oliver can’t reach him #stuffiekiller)Processed with VSCO with av4 preset

It’s beginning to look a lot like less Christmas, part 3

To be honest, it’s not just during the holidays that I hear the siren call of “more, more, more!” for the counter above my kitchen sink. It doesn’t function as usable counter space and it’s always tempting to start piling stuff on the ledge–decorations because it’s the first thing you see and then the odds and ends that seem to accumulate in a kitchen. I try to be disciplined and only keep a few succulents and some usable, but too-cute-to-store measuring cups on the ledge throughout the year. This year, I retired the 3-level snow globe vignette inspired by Pinterest and channeled my inner Joanna Gaines. I love the large “Christmas Trees For Sale” sign that Jo and Chip hang in their kitchen, but not enough to scour antique shops for a similar one with the just right patina (or for that matter, try to store one for 11 months of the year.) So last year I snagged this little sign in the Target bargain bin, but just leaned it on a shelf.

When I decided to put the bottle-brush trees and Santa gnome on the counter, I knew I had found the perfect spot for my sign.

My view while wondering why no one puts their dishes in the dishwasher is brightened with some holiday cheer, and it easy to clean around. And if I start to think maybe it needs some evergreen swag, I remember the year I filled in all the space with real greenery, and the pine needles constantly dropped off the ledge into the sink and the colander when I drained the pasta!

It’s beginning to look a lot like less Christmas, part two

As part of baby-stepping our way into a Christmas inspired more by minimalism than the holiday aisles at Costco, I decided the kitchen needed room to function as a work space more than a display space. We retired the kitchen Christmas tree with the popcorn garland, cooking-themed ornaments, and homemade gingerbread men, but I wanted the kitchen, where I spend a lot of time, to still feel festive. I also wanted space to roll out cookies without moving a million tchotchkes from the island to the table and back. I streamlined with just a few things that can be easily moved to the side. My chef Santa from our over-the-top years of collecting watches over the gnomes peeking out of house-shaped lantern and the ever-depleting jar of red and green M & Ms. My youngest made the gingerbread house at a “cozy” party over the weekend, and it rounds out the kitchen island vignette. It’s also the only place that we’re pretty sure Oliver the tricky golden doodle can’t reach it.

Check back tomorrow for a lot less of everything and kitchen sink!

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Less Christmas

The Ghost of Christmas Past

Growing up, my family would load the RV and head to Florida over Christmas to escape the Pennsylvania winter and dash my dreams of a Norman Rockwell holiday. Ever-practical, my parents decided it was pointless to put up a big tree since no one was going to be home. They stuck a 2-foot tree on a side table and finished decorating in record time. Fast forward to adulthood and I have my own house and a holiday-loving husband. When our first child arrives, we declare ourselves house-bound on Christmas forevermore and the decorating frenzy begins and lasts more than twenty years.

At our peak, we had a “princess” tree in the kids’ hallway, a tree in the foyer, a tree in the kitchen, a tree in the family room, and a tree in the basement. We had big Santas on the stairwell, flanking the fireplace, and little Santas sitting on any bit of open shelf in every room. Greenery hung off every banister, railing, and mantle, all entwined with fairy lights and hand-tied fabric bows. Couches didn’t escape either;  they were decked out in holiday throws and pillows. The kids’ rooms got Christmas-themed flannel sheets and stuffed santas and snowmen. The day after Thanksgiving, I unloaded the Christmas chinaware from storage and went to Target to load up on the new season of plastic and melamine kids’ dinnerware.

Our 4 kids were little and I loved decorating, and every year I developed amnesia about the time it took dismantling Christmas town. As our family grew up, however, the decorating began to feel like a burden and a chore that no one had the time or inclination to help with. I slowly began to cut back in 2016 and last year I canvassed the family about their feelings on the over-the-top decorating and whether I could update the decor. On one hand, I didn’t want to put time and effort into a tradition we had outgrown, but I certainly didn’t want to take away any beloved family institutions. What stayed? The big tree in the family room with the crazy mish-mash of collected ornaments, the decorations in the kids’ hallway, and the beloved Christmas Eve screening of Die Hard.

I didn’t go quite so hardcore, but I really love that decorating for the holidays is not a week-long sentence of hard labor and I don’t start to feel claustrophobic from all the extra everything and ready to tear it all down by the day after Christmas.

I’ll share a peak every day about what stayed and how I’m learning what minimalism means to me and my family.

I corralled the hot chocolate packets, peppermint stirrers, marshmallows, and spoons onto a tray with the milk frothier if the kids want to go old school. I’ll switch out the Christmas mugs in January and this got chocolate pop-up bar is good to go until Easter!

No Sleep till Brooklyn

Not to give my mother-in-law a complex, or anything, but we often head out of town as soon as she arrives for a babysitting job, I mean family visit. Our birthdays and wedding anniversary are perfectly spaced throughout the year, so practically anytime she comes to visit, we have an excuse for a getaway celebration.

Last weekend my mother-in-law flew in and we decided to see “Springsteen on Broadway” and visit our oldest daughter, who has just moved to New York, as an early anniversary trip. Our newly-minted New Yorker encouraged us to spread our city wings beyond our perennial fallback hotel, the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, so we decided to stay at the William Vale hotel in the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn.

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The William Vale hotel

First surprise, it’s not any cheaper to stay in Brooklyn and the hotel rooms are not any bigger. I think the Marriott Marquis is obviously more convenient to Broadway and I swear the room is a bit bigger, but not having to figure out which side of the elevator bay has the elevator that goes to your set of floors is a huge plus for the William Vale. It’s easy to go in and out of the hotel, and Williamsburg is a great place. The pace is slower than the mid-town, often because you are dodging toddlers and their stroller-pushing parents, and the scale of the neighborhood is much more human-sized. No rows of skyscrapers blocking the sky and many of the intersections manage traffic and pedestrians with a stop sign. There is a sense of community in the shops and restaurants– not just tourist traps trying to process hordes of visitors. People live, shop, and dine in Brooklyn and that vibe struck me as much more European than other areas of NYC that I’ve visited.

One of the many shops in Williamsburg

I loved all the green wherever it can grow in Brooklyn

The concierge at William Vale recommended Antica Pesa (https://www.anticapesa.com) when we were unable to secure reservations at Lilia (https://www.lilianewyork.com). Our dinner at Antica Pesa was very good. The crudo e bufala croccante sold us on the restaurant when we read the review on The Infatuation  as the “best fucking hot pocket you will ever eat.”( https://www.theinfatuation.com/new-york/reviews/antica-pesa) It was.

If a Hot Pocket were an It Girl

We also ordered the Gita Fuori Porta, basically an Italian charcuterie board, that was fine, but a little bit of a let down from that damn fine Hot Pocket. The three of us then shared two pasta dishes-Spaghetti caccio e pepe and the Schiaffoni all’Amatriciana- that were tasty and, to me with all of my one trip to Italy under my belt, cooked like they do it in Rome. Our second course was the Fiorentina—a Porterhouse steak brought to the table pre-sliced on a sizzling cast iron platter. My daughter pulled her pieces off right away to have them quite rare, but I left mine on a few moments more to make sure it quit mooing. We were both pleased. The menu states the Fiorentina is for two, but with the starters and pasta courses, we shared the steak amongst the three of us and were satisfied with our portions. A slice of tiramisu for the table rounded out the night.

The Fiorentina finished cookout our table

The only disappointment was the wine list. We ordered the only Brunello they offered, and it was…okay. Maybe someone who wants their Brunello to taste like Pinot Noir would love it. The second bottle was an Ornellaia La Serre Nuove and it was fine, if overpriced. We were really looking for a special wine and were not impressed with the wine offerings. At the end of the night, we ruefully looked back at the restaurant’s dictum forbidding outside bottles of wine and realized too late why that rule exists. If you love fruity Italian wines, there may be a winner for you. Otherwise, I think I would recommend ordering wine by the glass, but definitely go try that Hot Pocket.

For a quick nightcap we headed back to the William Vale. They have an extremely popular rooftop bar that has a long line to wait for the dedicated elevator to go up to it. If you are a guest of the hotel, your key card in the regular elevator will allow you to go straight to the Westlight rooftop bar. And wait in line to get a drink and have a screaming conversation with your party that no one can hear anyone else. We had a drink at the bar in the hotel’s restaurant Leuca. It was calm, with attentive bar staff, and conducive to a conversation.

We returned to Leuca for brunch the next day before heading to Bushwick to check out the new pad. Many fewer thousand- dollar Bugaboo strollers, but still a neighborhood feel with lots of kids around. Bushwick is grittier than Williamsburg with more gang tags and less art graffiti, fewer shops and a lot more bars. And so much weed. A gentleman on a stoop rolled a blunt the size of which I’ve never seen outside of a Cheech and Chong movie. It’s hard as a parent because I want to protect my kids, but I also want my kids to be independent and follow their dreams, even into Bushwick. I doublechecked that she still had her pepper spray and I made peace with the fact that I lived in some let’s say more colorful areas and had never had any problems—unlike the multiple property crimes we’ve endured since moving into an affluent suburb.

Please return her accordion! Bushwick accordion larceny

My daughter decided to join us for dinner in before our show and after freshening up at the hotel, we had a 45 minute Uber ride to Broadway from Williamsburg. We had trouble deciding whether to eat in Brooklyn or close to the theater, and we forgot to make reservations when we committed to heading to midtown before dinner. We were lucky to get seated at Le Rivage, a French restaurant that we enjoyed on previous visits, and didn’t complain about our table being on enclosed porch. The wine prices, especially for a restaurant within walking distance to the Broadway shows, are reasonable and we got a decent bottle of Saint-Emilion Bordeaux. I chose to go more down-home in my 3-course prix fixe choices. I started with the country pate– it was a little drier than I prefer and they gave me the tiniest dollops of country and Dijon mustards. The restaurant had a huge trophy from a NYC burger festival for its French Onion Soup Burger and I had to try it. Bleh. If you are of a certain age and went to public school, imagine “swiss steak”—which is neither Swiss nor a steak—on a bun with fries from a food service freezer section. I did enjoy the chocolate mousse for my last course! My husband had the trout almondine and my daughter the duck a la ‘orange from the upcharge menu and they did liked their dinners. well enough

Stage before the show

After bidding our daughter farewell, after all, tickets to see Springsteen on Broadway are expensive as hell, we headed over to watch one of the best shows we have ever seen. For over two hours, the Boss told stories, jokes, and accompanied himself on the piano, guitar, and harmonica to soulful renditions of some of his greatest songs. I knew he could sing and play, but I was astounded by how well he could draw in his audience and make the theatre as intimate as talking around a kitchen table. For me, I was sometimes torn between whether I should act like I’m at the theatre or like I’m at a Springsteen concert. Judging by the forlorn “Bruce” calls and sporadic clapping in time, I wasn’t alone. But, man, it was awesome. At the end, he apologized because his wife Patty Scialfa, who usually comes out to play with him,  had flown out to do mom stuff and reminded us that, “there is no understudy for the wife.” When the house lights were brought up so the audience could take photos, he went ahead and gave us an encore as amends (like anyone could be mad at the Boss after a show like that!)

The encore

As the show ended, we didn’t get outside fast enough to be in the front of the theatre for the autograph signing and hand-shaking that he does on the way to his waiting car, but we were good.

The next morning we walked around Williamsburg to find a Polish bakery that I had noticed walking to Antica Pesa Friday night. We never found that one, but we did find a great one in Martha’s Country Bakery!

I had a flat white and an almond croissant that, close your eyes French people, rivaled what I’ve had in Paris. My husband had an Earl Vanilla latte and a berry turnover and berry sconce, and a berry Napoleon, their specialty, to go. I brought black and white cookies as big as a salad plate home for the kids and Grandma. No one tried the cookies until Tuesday and it disappointingly dry and crumbly—maybe it had been fantastic on Sunday, the other baked goods certainly were.

Overall, I really enjoyed staying in Brooklyn more than staying in the more congested touristy areas close to Times Square. We took Uber to get around in the city and my daughter took a combination of the subway and Lyft. While I may be too old to rock the party eight days a week anymore, a weekend in Brooklyn is perfect!

Scoring at TJs

Have you heard of the hedonism treadmill? We’ve got a grocery store hedonism treadmill going on in my neighborhood. First, we only had the basic Giant food–to be fair it was clean and bright and had more variety than any grocery store our parents and grandparents had ever shopped in–but we heard tell of this amazing grocery store out of New York called Wegmans. The first Wegmans to open in our county need police to direct traffic, that’s how crazy we were for a grocery store with all the regular stuff, plus an amazing prepared foods section and babysitting! The next Wegmans to open up in our area ditched the babysitting area, but put in a bar, and since all my kids were in school by then, I thought that was a great idea. It didn’t take long, however, to grow tired of all those options. You know, Wegmans was great and all, but, well, it was just so big! If only a smaller grocery with great organic foods and a top-notch prepared foods section would open. Our prayers were answered by a brand-spanking new Whole Foods, with a pub! Apparently the grocers’ marketing teams know our area! It was awesome and a glass of wine before shopping helps those Whole Foods’ price go down, but, you know, maybe what we really needed was a grocery store with convenience foods and organics, but cheaper. Next stop on the food store hedonism treadmill was Trader Joe’s. While our new TJs does not have a bar, it does have ample parking.

I thought I’d share some of my new-found faves from Trader Joe’s

I made the honey roasted pumpkin ravioli and it was amazing! I prepared according to the package directions and served it with melted butter and some jarred pesto (from Wegmans). One package served two of us.

The Tapas Sampler has 3 varieties of cheese in just-right amounts and a great price of $9.99. I’d be hard-pressed to get three different cheeses for that price anywhere else. When I want to serve two or three varieties of cheese, I have to buy bigger blocks which substantially raises the price and often, there is leftover cheese that goes to waste.

The wine is really priced well and there are a lot of tasting notes on the shelf which helps me to navigate through unfamiliar wines. On opening day, they had a wine tasting and some really mellow customers waiting in crazy-long lines.

In the frozen food aisle, the macarons are ridiculously inexpensive and unbelievably tasty! A box of 12 in a variety of flavors in $4.99! I like to keep a box on hand just in case. I keep buying them because I’ve eaten them “just in case” the football game is on, or it’s not.  The Taste of Alscace flatbread and a glass of wine can save any day when you walk in late and starving.

How I Learned Somm-thing about wine

You know the feeling when you fall in love with something and discover there is a whole genre of movies and documentaries just waiting for you? That’s how my husband and I felt when a friend mentioned that we would like Somm on Netflix. We watched it and became totally invested in who would pass their Master Sommelier test. It’s like watching the Olympics of wine tasting— they can accomplish extraordinary feats like discerning grape varietals, climate of origin, and vintage years by observing, smelling and tasting the wine. We followed our favorites in the next installment,  Somm: Into the Bottle, and started printing off wine tasting worksheets from Masterssommeliers.org so we could play along with our wine of the night. From watching and learning, I am pretty confident I could discern a Chardonnay from a Pinot Noir and not much else with real confidence. But seriously, the sommeliers sharing their journey have an extraordinary gift and I’m grateful to those who are able to taste and describe for those like me, who are still figuring out how to describe wines they want to drink with dinner. Needless to say, we are stoked for the premiere of Somm 3 next month!

My brush with fame

Thirsty for more, we next watched Decanted, a documentary about winemaking in Napa and it highlighted the establishment of Italics winery. Of course, Italics was at the top of list of wineries to visit. I must admit I was fangirling a little bit during our tour and tasting. It was a blast to see the improvements made to the buildings from the time that the documentary was shot. What can I say, I don’t get out much!

I blame our next wine flick for my husband’s obsession with checking every wine cork we pull at a restaurant to make sure it matches the label on the bottle. Sour Grapes is the saga of wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan. It draws you in with a true-crime story, and then offers a glimpse into a world of Lifestyles of the Rich and Spending a Shit-ton of Money on Wine. When it came out that Johnny Depp spent thirty thousand a month on wine, I wasn’t too shocked, but I was flabbergasted by the money dropped by Burgundy collectors and the video clips of Rudy and friends bragging about the cost of the bottles they had popped that night. I felt so much better about socking away a few Napa Cabs that cost more than our monthly car payment in 1990.

Yup, he checked the cork against the label here

 

So what is the most important thing that I’ve learned from my wine entertainment? The best way to learn more about wine is to drink more wine! And that’s a lesson I can take to heart.

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Go ahead, rose´ all day!

My favorite rose´is Caldwell’s Joy, a heavenly rose´of Syrah with an astronomical price tag–around $70 a bottle–so there’s no all-day party at that price point for me! Fortunately, it’s not hard to find a delicious supermarket rose´ that delivers the flavor of summer with a price as tiny as a Kardashian bikini.

My faves under $15

French Blue rose´ of Bordeaux is my go-to bottle because it has enough structure to stand up to summer fare like grilled chicken and salads, but can also segue into heartier wines when used as an aperitif.

Marval rose´is perfect for  beach or poolside parties because 1. it has a spout for serving and a handy spot for hanging and 2. you get 1.5 liters for about $15!

Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve rose´is very light and fruity, but not too sweet!

Pool Boy Cotes de Provence rose´ could be the ultimate poolside accessory with its plastic bottle and handy screw top. #safetywine

Summer Water rose´is fruity, light, and crisp, and my favorite wine with sushi and a tuna poke bowl!

Charles and Charles rose´is the steal of the summer at 10 bucks! Crisp and tangy it is the perfect glass for lounging in the sun. I love it with aged cheese and something salty!

To the Beach, Beach

Our nearly-annual trip to the beach will soon be upon us, and I can’t wait! Our visits and the cast of characters have morphed through the years, and we have started to come pretty close to what we consider the perfect beach vacation. For us, we have distilled the 7 days into sand, wine, and food.

I’ve  learned a lot of lessons along the way. Living with other people for a week really taught me about what I like and what I can learn from how others do things. Years ago we went with my husband’s extended family and they wanted everyone to cook at once, and then the families would just heat up a plate of the various main dishes and sides. Very efficient and you did not have to coordinate dinner time, but I like the camaraderie of everyone visiting in the kitchen while I cook and sitting around a table with nothing but time begets the best stories. I also learned that there is a secret circle of hell that resides at any oceanside grocery store on a Saturday, the traditional day of east coast rental turnover. On our first visit to Hilton Head Island, I froze a baked ziti and brought it and enough groceries to get through the weekend. When we arrived at our rental house, I popped it into the oven and by the time we unpacked and had taken the kids to dip their toes, it was ready. Bringing the groceries requires a lot of forethought and planning, but it was so worth it to stroll into the Publix on Monday afternoon and not have stand in a checkout line that stretched to the back of the store.

I’ve also learned to bring my own spices. Even if I plan to buy the meat for a main meal at the beach, I bring a Ziploc bag with the various spices for that dish with me. Again, a few minutes of planning at home saves a lot of money at the grocery and your cupboards are not full of barely used jars of thyme. My favorite homemade mixes to bring are Mexican seasoning for ground beef, thyme and salt for oven-roasted skin-on chicken breast halves, and ingredients for the brine for skinless, boneless chicken breast. I also bring my own salt and pepper grinders and my good knife. I hate using a dull knife and sometimes the cutlery at a beach house is dull or missing altogether. Also, bring a Sharpie. With so many people running around, it’s imperative to label bottles of water, and my kids would tell you, the last packages of snacks that you are claiming.

We also bring our own wine. We might pick up a few bottles at Publix, especially of Rose´, but we bring the good stuff from home. For us, it is worth the hassle because we get to choose what we’d like to drink and not settle for some overpriced mediocre bottle. Hilton Head Island is a 10-hour drive down the most congested, spirit-testing stretch of I 95. To keep our wine cool, if not our heads in the traffic, we use gel-filled freezer packs between the bottles and keep them covered, away from direct sunlight. And drive like hell.

All the stress of the drive melts away at the sight of the bridge to the Island—except I’m still pissed at the guy who was tailgating me so closely that I couldn’t see his headlights while I’ve got a string of cars barely a car-length in front of me and we’re driving, well, let’s just say I’m keeping up with traffic. Dude, there is nowhere to go, the traffic is bumper-to-bumper to the Keys! Sorry, I had to get that off my chest.

The march of time has changed our group—expanding families and conflicting schedules caused the trips with my husband’s extended family to peter out and our family became the locus for a new group. Our first visit to Hilton Head was  just my family of six and my mother-in-law. My mother-in-law has gotten remarried and her husband now joins us, my nephew started joining us with his wife and daughter, had two more children and then has gotten divorced and remarried with the addition of a step-son, my dad has passed away, but my mother still comes, and we worried that my oldest would be unable to join us this summer after college graduation because of work, but she can! I think that is a hidden beauty of annual vacations. Because they are discrete points of time in a whirlwind life, I can look back at each vacation and remember what my family was like with crystal-clear clarity because it wasn’t muddled by errands, appointments, practices and the muck of life.

Mornings are spent walking on the beach, drinking coffee by the pool, and giving warnings about putting on enough sunscreen. Depending on the day’s tide, we might boogie board on the incoming surf or start the sandcastle of the day. Since we tend to get up with the sun at the beach, it doesn’t seem odd to crack a beer before lunch and then eat lunch with a rose´ to fuel a full afternoon of swimming and chasing the badminton birdie down the beach since we never seem to be able to return it to the server. As evening approaches, I head back to the house to shower and begin dinner prep. I love to have theme nights for dinner and a lot of times there’s a specialty cocktail to match our upcoming meal. Margaritas, of course, for Mexican night and Aperol Spritzes for Italian night. For the kids, we make slushies out of the sour mix and bring  San Pellegrino flavored sodas for some Italian flair.  Dinners are long and leisurely, when they were small the kids watched a video after dinner while the adults lingered and now most of the kids are old enough to drift in and out to catch a story and then go back to their phones. Like the wine, the reminiscences flow and a great counterpoint is that my parents and mother-in-law did not see each other (except for our wedding day) until we started going to the beach together and obviously, we didn’t know her husband until about 10 years ago, so the older generation is sharing backstories with each other that we had never heard before.

And so the days repeat. We rent bikes and we will bike to lunch one afternoon and then at least one other time, we will bike to get ice cream. We’ll take a few leisurely bike rides down the beach or around the lagoons looking for alligators (we always find them!), and there is always one misadventure, like the time a rainstorm caught us unawares. But no mini golf or arcades, no eating out every night, and definitely no shopping at outlets—in all seriousness, why is outlet shopping on vacation a thing? We play games at night, Tripoli, Hearts, Spades, and the kids’ favorite—the fishbowl game. Sometimes I plan crafts, like everyone gets a small canvas and paints a beach scene or one year we collected our corks and made pirate faces with Sharpies on some and tied others with kitchen twine to float them as a pirate raft in a little pool left during low tide.

At the end of the week, we finish packing and get ready to return to Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Alabama, (and now New York), but we are connected, both my nuclear family and our extended family. Shared stories and experiences will carry us through until the next time, and as our parents age and my kids start their own lives, there is always the bittersweet feeling that things will never be the same.  But I hope that these weeks at the beach with nothing more than sand and family time will be the mortar that builds the foundation for the kind of tradition that keeps our family, however it changes, together throughout the years.