Musings on the beauty of the road trip; by plane, car, boat, bike, foot…

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Lucky Travels

When our connecting flight from Bonaire to Toronto was cancelled on Sunday and we found ourselves stuck in Newark, I felt very unlucky. In fact, I experienced quite a lot of self pity, which at the time was unnecessary since we were immediately rescheduled and (due to a booking mixup) ended up at a pretty luxurious Marriott hotel for the evening. A decent meal and good bottle of wine was hardly grounds for “poor me” feelings, but I harboured them with unyielding emotion well into the following day, which we spent working out and shopping; again, hardly reason for feelings of despair. But when the text came Monday evening that the second flight was cancelled again, I moved quickly into panic mode and fear took over; fear of missing work; fear of the worry I’d be causing my Mom; fear which morphed into dread; fear which jump started the exploration of other possible ways to get home. At this point I was ready to drive home. These moments of desperation all led to an interesting series of events (that some might call fate, God’s will or Karma, but which I call luck) that eventually got us home.

Today I am strangely overwhelmed with the feeling of luck; lucky to have secured tickets for an Newark-Ottawa-Toronto flight after the second flight home was cancelled; lucky to have had a super New York taxi driver who drove us from Newark to Laguardia in less than 70 minutes; lucky to be waiting at the same gate as the last flight to Toronto boarded and to have a partner with the foresight to ask if there were any available seats; lucky to deal with an amazing Air Canada agent and ground crew who went out of their way to get our bags off the Ottawa plane and onto the the Toronto plane; lucky to have a seasoned flight crew that safely landed the plane in terrible weather after twenty minutes of being bounced around the sky like a ping pong ball; lucky we only sat on the runway for one hour; lucky I remembered that at Pearson your bags don’t always come on the indicated bag carrousel; lucky that, still wearing our summer clothes, we caught a cab as soon as we stepped outside; lucky to be home when others still are not; lucky to feel the warm sun through the cold trees today.

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New Year’s in Bonaire

I’ve seen many fireworks in my lifetime, and they have always brought me gleeful, albeit short lived, moments of joy, but I never imagined a place so in love with these shows of light as Bonaire. The firecrackers started as soon as we arrived (on Dec 27) and did not let up until New Year’s Eve, when it seemed everyone on the island held their own hour long display (yup, I said hour and some “shows” continued well past 2am). We stood on the rooftop of the Djambo and watched all around us as the people of Bonaire competed for our attention; it was an incredible sight indeed, and was the perfect way to cap off a fantastic BBQ dinner hosted by the Djambo owners Dick, Liselotte, Martin and Isle.

New Year’s Day was equally entertaining. I must add here that I have mad respect for places that don’t bow to the whims of the tourist; everything on Bonaire is closed on Xmas and New Year’s Day including National parks and the so-called “tourist attractions”. I think if you visit a place it is because you want to experience the place in its everyday workings; I don’t want anywhere to change for me. We planned another day of exploring the beautiful reefs, and lucky for us the Cadushy Distillery was open and provided an interesting morning stop on our way to spend the day in the ocean. Run by yet another couple who came on their honeymoon and never went home, The Cadushy Distillery is Bonaire’s only distillery. They specialize in spirits and liqueurs made from cactus and other locally grown ingredients; a homage to the family of islands and the history surrounding them. The tastings, tour and accompanying history of the island makes this worth a visit, and in our case, was a great way to start off the year.
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Staying in Bonaire

I’ve only ever stayed at all-inclusive resorts when in the Caribbean, and while the convenience of not having to worry about food or drink might seem appealing, being locked up in one place doing the same thing every day is definitely not how I like to travel. This time down south we rented an apartment; this is how most people set up shop in Bonaire, and the fact that there are really no resorts on the island testifies to the fact that this is a place for people who like to do things (scuba, kite-board, snorkel, hike, bike, etc.). There’s something great about hitting the local supermarket to stock up your temporary home with all the food and drink you love, and if you so choose, also have the option of hitting the local restaurants and bar. This, my friends, is really the best of both worlds. All the apartments here at the Djambo open up to the centre courtyard pool & bar, which (along with an outdoor kitchen) pretty much makes this the best accommodation I’ve ever stayed at.

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Kite Surfing and Cactus Blue

Yesterday was a glorious day here in Bonaire. We keep meeting people who arrived on vacation and never went home, and it’s easy to see why. One of those transplants is Haiger, owner and chef of the famous Cactus Blue food truck, which finds its permanent home on Kite Beach. Although we didn’t get to taste his famous lion fish burgers, we did enjoy beer and stories with him; this was a perfect way to end a day of kicking back on the beach and watching our guys on the water.

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Cuisine Surprises in Bonaire

There are many many things I expected from a vacation in Bonaire, but incredibly inventive cuisine was not one of them. On an impromptu recommendation from some locals and other visitors we stumbled into At Sea and enjoyed a Chef’s tasting menu (& wine parings, of course) that rivals restaurants I’ve visited in New York and Chicago. A fantastic surprise, and needless to say, we’ll be returning next Friday.

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Chicago – I love you!

I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of writing about or visiting Chicago. Yes, I’ve been to New York (every year for the last 10 years for both work and pleasure), but Chicago has had my heart since the very first visit, and every subsequent visit makes it feel more like home.

I loved Chicago before this weekend, but the addition of the bike-share program Divvy (with hundreds of stations, and more planned) solidified it as my favourite city to visit, and stirred up even more pains of jealousy, because they so seamlessly added this program into the city landscape, in all kinds of neighbourhoods (note to Toronto: it’s not just in the downtown “tourist” areas), and put in the necessary  bike lanes to make getting around on a Divvy the best way to navigate the city regardless if you are visiting or living in it.

Divvy stations everywhere we wanted to go!

Divvy stations everywhere we wanted to go!

The visit was a short one this time. We arrived on a Friday and returned on a Sunday, and, thanks to our brand new Nexus cards, the flying experience took less time than a drive to the cottage. Chicago is a town for those who love art, food, music and running. Yes, I said running. In all the cities I’ve visited, I’ve never seen so many runners, and this weekend we both got to take part in the Crosstown Classic 10K, a race that pits North siders against South siders (we each took a side, and I’m happy to report that my side, the North won).  It was one of three different races happening on Chicago’s magnificent waterfront, and I think one of five different events happening around town. Amazing! Here we complain and argue about the inconvenience of putting on such things, and there all the good people (experienced or not) join in.  It was one of my most memorable race experiences.

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We didn’t get to the Art Institute of Chicago, or any of our usual jazz spots Blue Chicago or The Green Mill, but in Chicago it’s not difficult to fill your time with art and music.  Our Divvy mode of transportation, which took us to a variety of neighbourhoods, led us to a number of street art installations (another thing I wish we had more of here in Toronto). Our one night of music was filled with the sounds of my favourite band Iron and Wine at one of the most beautiful theatres I’ve ever been to, the legendary Chicago Theatre. And this year, we finally made it to the The Randolph Street Market considered by “those who know” to be “a mecca of cool”, “the best hot spot for antiquing”, “the best Chicago venue for people watching”, and “the Barney’s of Vintage”.  I was jealous, jealous, jealous not only of all the incredible vintage finds and original artisan work, but by the shear affordability of it all. We did manage to purchase an original large scale piece of art which will soon have a home over the fire place (as soon as we put it together 🙂

Street art, including a Picasso.

Street art, including a Picasso.

Iron and Wine at the Chicago Theatre

Iron and Wine at the Chicago Theatre

Vintage and original awesome at the Randolph Street Market.

Vintage and original awesome at the Randolph Street Market.

It was difficult to decide where we were going to eat, having only two real opportunities for some great food experiences; difficult because, in my opinion, there is so much interesting and innovative talent happening in the kitchens of Chicago, much better than I’ve experienced in, gasp!, New York, which I think may have to do with price points. Let me explain, I think it’s easy to do amazing for a lot of money; if I’m dropping $400 on dinner for two, it’s probably going to be great, but I think real talent lies in the ability to blow the mind of patrons for half that money. That being said, we returned to two of my favourites (who continue to occupy spots in my personal top 5 restaurants any where in the world), Perennial Virant and Longman & Eagle. I don’t know enough about food, nor am I any kind of food critic, but these two places have consistently demonstrated creative ways to impress the heck out of my taste buds (wine, cocktails and service are all equally top notch). We also managed to squeeze in a brunch visit after the race to the newest addition to Stephanie Izard’s goat empire, The Little Goat, which remains true to the food talent we witnessed at Girl and the Goat on our last visit.

Cocktails at Perennial Virant

Cocktails at Perennial Virant

Perennial Virant hIghlights: smoked goat and smoked tomatoes!

Perennial Virant hIghlights: smoked goat and smoked tomatoes!

An amazing Cab Franc!

An amazing Cab Franc!

Little Goat fish tacos & ruben (huge diner style portions).

Little Goat fish tacos & ruben (huge diner style portions).

Little Goat roof top patio.

Little Goat roof top patio.

Longman & Eagle highlights: bone marrow, lamb tartar and pig face.

Longman & Eagle highlights: bone marrow, lamb tartar and pig face.

So if you haven’t been to Chicago yet, please go and go any time of the year; there is so much to see, hear, eat, drink and experience about this great city.

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California Part I: Santa Rosa (Sonoma and Napa)

This summer’s road trip took us to California, specifically San Francisco, Wine country (Sonoma, Napa, Anderson Valleys) and Mendocino. So rather than one gigantic post, I thought this would best be done in three parts; here, my friends, is part one.

We landed in San Francisco and took the Bart into town in order to pick up our rental car. I mention this bland point because, once agin, we landed in a city smaller than my own which has an easy to use and extensive public transportation system; this always causes much envy. Dragging suitcases and carry-ons through a strange city, especially a very hilly one, is not fun, but renting a car in the city always guarantees a MUCH cheaper rate than picking up at the airport (half price actually). Truthfully, I will admit that the walk from the Bart station to the Hertz office left a bad taste in my mouth for a city we were soon to return to for five days. We walked through a “rougher” neighbourhood, and despite the fact that there were two of us, we were heckled and accosted (more on this later). Once we had the car, we made our way out of the city, but not before stoping for some much needed sustenance at Tacolicious, a popular (small chain) Mexican inspired restaurant.

Tacolicious in San Francisco

Tacolicious in San Francisco

San Francisco is cold. Some may call it mild, but having just arrived from a super hot and humid Toronto, the 17 degrees was shocking. I was glad to drive away to our first stop, Santa Rosa. Santa Rosa is a very small city in the Sonoma Valley; a less expensive option compared to the trendy Healdsburg, it would serve as the perfect home base for the activities of the next four days.

After this full day of flying and driving, our dinner at Willi’s Wine Bar was exactly the California welcome we needed. Super fresh and local food accompanied by an endless list of both local and world wines, almost all of which were available by the glass. Needless to say, we spent the evening eating a variety of small plates (oysters, in-house made charcuterie, etc.), and tasting some of the incredible wines the area had to offer.

Willi's Wine Bar

Willi’s Wine Bar

The next day was the start of three full days of wine tasting in the area. The options are overwhelming, and it pays to do a little research before you go; talk to people who have been, and get your hands on some of the great maps available at most hotels, restaurants and wineries. We had some starting points in mind thanks to fellow oenophiles and the other wineries we hit were a result of recommendations from the wineries we visited, sommeliers and winemakers we met; this led us to some of our favourite spots. Be prepared to pay for tastings, $6-$10 in Sonoma and Anderson Valley, and $25+ in Napa. The big difference we noticed about these regions was that in Sonoma & Anderson Valleys the wineries we visited waved the tasting fees with purchase (which was pretty much every time for us), but in Napa tastings fees are charged regardless of what and how much you buy. I think it’s more than fair to charge for tasting wine when no purchase is made, but when it is, I think it’s in bad taste to charge me an additional $25 for the four small drops of wine I tried (and in most cases, shared!).

The wine region of Sonoma county is stunning, and it is easy to be distracted by the beauty of the wineries; gorgeous vineyards lined with silvery green olive trees, and perfumed by the beautiful eucalyptus trees. We had an incredible first day and tasted some really great wine, but the favourite that day was definitely St. Francis (if you want a more detailed list of most of what we tasted on this vacation, you can click here: Wine Tasting in California 2013).

Planing the wine route.

Planing the wine route.

St. Francis Winery

St. Francis Winery

Sonoma Valley

Sonoma Valley

California Wineries

California Wineries

Our second dinner in Santa Rosa was at Jackson’s Bar and Oven, a last minute recommendation we received from some locals. The wood-oven pizza, oysters, dessert and the wine were fantastic; and it was great to be able to walk back to our hotel.

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Our second day of winery visits was done via road bikes. I can not talk or write enough about how biking on vacation is the BEST way to see and experience the place you’re visiting. We do this every time we vacation, and it’s always a highlight. The ride through the Sonoma Valley vineyards was definietly the BEST ride I’ve every done on vacation, not in terms of athletic performance, but in terms of the sheer beauty of the surroundings. The route we rode was almost absent of cars, which made the experience even more idealic. We rented road bikes from two spots: Echelon Cycle in Santa Rosa, and Wine Country Bikes in Healdsburg. We spent the day tasting and buying (conservatively) stopping also to enjoy lunch at the busy and delicious Dry Creek Store. The favourite here was the beautiful Bella Vineyards and WIne Caves; a stunning winery at the end of our bike route, which poured us some of my favourite wine.

Biking Sonoma Valley

Biking Sonoma Valley

Our third evening was a spontaneous decision made after talking to locals all day, the Santa Rosa Night Market; every Wednesday in the centre of town, hundreds of people gather to enjoy a delightful combination of local food, craft vendors, live music, children’s activities, a wine tasting garden, and some costumed characters (my favourites were the dancing ninjas). We weren’t sure sacrificing our hard-to-get reservations at a heralded foodie destination was the right thing to do, but it turned out to be perfect way to continue to experience many of the things this area has to offer.

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Our third day of wine tasting took us to the famous Napa valley. After three days of being in this area, we debated whether or not to visit this very touristy, and (in the opinion of locals) highly overrated wine region, but we felt that we should visit at least once, especially since we were so close. We drove through the, sometimes unbearable, traffic to hit up some spots recommended to us, most especially the bubbles. The favourite Napa spot was Pride Mountain Vineyards, who welcomed us despite their reservations required policy. The wine here was outstanding, and they were the only place we visited this day that waved the tasting fee with purchase.

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We hit up the usual suspects for bubbles, but had the best experience at Mumm Napa, not only because of the Fine Art Photography Gallery (permanet exhibit of Ansel Adams as well as a rotation exhibit), but because of an unexpected opportunity to taste their Pinot Noir (the only wine they make); this wine was INCREDIBLE, and one of the best Pinots we tasted. Proof that being friendly with strangers can yield unexpected pleasure.

Napa Valley

Napa Valley

Our final evening in Santa Rosa took us back to St. Francis Winery for the first night of their Outdoor Summer Film Festival; a screening of Dirty Dancing. For a wine-loving 80s’ girl, this was the best thing! We borrowed a blanket from our hotel and sat among the locals sipping wine and eating some great food truck eats. It was the perfect ending to our Sonoma stay.

St. Francis Outdoor Film Festival

St. Francis Outdoor Film Festival

Stay tuned for PART II: Mendocino and Anderson Valley