HOTEL REVIEW: BERNARDUS LODGE & SPA

A couple of weeks ago, I was in California for a work retreat and we were lucky enough to have rooms booked at the idyllic Bernardus Lodge & Spa in Carmel Valley. An easy escape from San Francisco, the lodge is set in the valley hills, about 2 hours’ drive south from SFO, and just 15 minutes from the coastal towns of Carmel and Monterey (the setting for the mini-series of Big Little Lies – for all the fans out there!).

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The Rooms

The lodge’s 73 guest rooms are nestled among the property’s 28 acres of vineyards, orchards and gardens. And even the most basic room includes a sitting area, dining table, and fireplace. For larger groups or families, there is also the option to book larger suites or 2-bedroom villas. The furnishings evoke rustic California charm with a modern twist.

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Around the Resort

Off the main patio, the Bernardus has a manicured lawn offering guests the opportunity to play bocce ball, croquet, or practice their putting.

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Just a short walk from the game field, guests will find themselves immersed in a magical garden, growing flowers in addition to vegetables and herbs used by the kitchen. I was lucky enough to visit when the roses were in full bloom.

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The Bernardus even has their own resident honeybees which produce local honey for guests to enjoy.

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In the on-site restaurant and bar, guests can sample a variety of Bernardus wines made from grapes grown and harvested right on the property. Or, take a trip down the road to the Bernardus Winery for a more formal tasting.

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Lucia Restaurant & Bar serves delicious farm-to-table cuisine with both indoor and outdoor seating options. As mentioned above, many of the vegetables and herbs are sourced directly from the on-site garden.

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After dinner, guests can enjoy a glass of wine by the fire pit, adjacent to the pool.

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Or take an early morning dip in the Bernardus pool.

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And of course, no visit to a resort would be complete without a trip to the spa! Unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit the spa on my trip, but I heard wonderful things from other guests.

Outside the Grounds

Perhaps the most amazing amenity offered by Bernardus Lodge is the complimentary Mercedes that guests can ‘rent’ for a couple of hours. These cars are perfect for an afternoon exploring the Monterey Peninsula and the famed 17 mile driveIMG_6443IMG_6505

Don’t miss the iconic ‘Lone Cypress’, thought to be almost 250 years old.

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In keeping with the car theme, you can also book a lesson with the nearby Land Rover Driving School.  One of three in the country, instructors will teach you off-roading techniques in top of the line Land Rover models.

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And of course, California is full of wineries, so don’t miss sampling some wines in the Carmel region. My favorite was Folktale Winery which offers a very affordable wine tasting alongside curated cheese and charcuterie platters and live music in a comfortable outdoor setting.

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The Carmel Valley is a perfect escape from city life and Bernardus Lodge & Spa is the ideal setting to unplug and relax for a few days.

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ALPS TAKE 2: CHAMONIX-MONT BLANC

Last year, my friend and I traveled to Zermatt to ski alongside the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps. This year, we decided to check out the French side of the mountain range and ventured to Chamonix to ski alongside another iconic European mountain, Mont Blanc.

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Getting There

While Chamonix itself is in the French Alps, the resort is located right on the border of Switzerland, making it easily accessible from Geneva’s airport. From New York, we flew to Geneva on Air France, with a short layover at Charles de Gaulle in Paris. The drive from Geneva to Chamonix is an easy 1 hour and 15 minutes and many shuttle companies offer affordable transportation. We booked with Alpybus for about 50 euros per person (round trip).

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Where to Stay

The Chamonix-Mont Blanc valley consists of a few different ski areas and as a result, there are plenty of options for accommodation. We booked a little late but were able to get a room at Chalet Hotel le Castel, a boutique property in Les Praz de Chamonix, a quaint little village located about 5-10 minutes drive from Chamonix’s main downtown area.

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The hotel was absolutely perfect for a weekend – located just across the street from La Flégère cable car, offering ski-in/ski-out access. Le Ravenel Sportshop is also located between the hotel and the lift, so renting equipment is a breeze.

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Our room at Chalet Hotel le Castel was absolutely adorable – the perfect blend of modern amenities (hello TV in the mirror) and quirky furnishings (don’t miss the giant flamingo), while still maintaining the look and feel of a French ski chalet.

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The Mountain

As I mentioned there are several ski areas located within the Chamonix area. Since we were across the street from La Flégère, we stayed on the slopes in that area, which also connects to Brévent. There was plenty of terrain in the Brévent-Flégère ski area for two full days, although I’d recommend trying some of the other ski areas if you are visiting for a longer period of time.

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The lifts opened each day at 8:50 am and we were usually one of the first in line. We were lucky enough to have amazing spring skiing weather during our trip, so we were treated to warmer temps and plenty of sunshine. Generally, we like to ski harder in the morning and stop for an early lunch then head back out for a few hours in the afternoon before finishing the day with a little après-ski beverage.

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Where to Eat

On the Mountain:

  • Altitude 2000 – in the Brévent ski area, offers salads, sandwiches, pizzas and drinks with plenty of outdoor seating. Sunny and quick service.fullsizeoutput_826
  • Le Panoramic – Also in the Brévent ski area, but at the top of the mountain (take the gondola up); offers panoramic views of the mountains and valley.
  • La Chavanne – Back in Flégère, a great spot for a quick lunch snack or perfect for après-ski. Both days we stopped here around 3-3:30 to enjoy some live music and rosé. (Tip: don’t miss the chocolate crepe for an afternoon snack)fullsizeoutput_82bfullsizeoutput_828

In Les Praz de Chamonix:

  • La Cabane des Praz – A recommendation from our dear friend, this place did not disappoint. Offering refined french cuisine in a rustic setting, we had the perfect seat by the fire and a delicious three-course meal.
  • Restaurant le Castel – The restaurant in our hotel was so delicious, we ate there twice. Being so close to the Italian border, they had all of my favorite Italian dishes: fresh carpaccio, penne a la vodka and probably the best tiramisu we’ve ever had. Great comfort food after a tough day of skiing!fullsizeoutput_83bfullsizeoutput_81d

Overall, Chamonix was absolutely gorgeous, offered tremendous skiing, and delicious food. Plus, it was an easy weekend trip for Europe. We can’t wait to come back!

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A SOLO WEEKEND IN SANTA FE, NM

Santa Fe, New Mexico is the oldest state capital city in the United States, founded by Spanish colonists in the early 1600s. The city is located roughly an hour north of Albuquerque and centers around a historic plaza and the Palace of the Governors, which dates to 1610 and holds the title for the oldest government building in continuous use in the US. In recent years, Santa Fe has entered the tourism spotlight due to its numerous outdoor activities, plethora of art galleries and museums, and booming culinary scene.

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Friday Night

JetBlue operates a daily flight at 8 pm EST from JFK International Airport to Albuquerque International Sunport (I’m still not certain as to why it’s called a sunport and not an airport!). Since I arrived in New Mexico on the later side, I decided to spend the night at the Courtyard Albuquerque Airport, which was extremely clean, convenient, and affordable.

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Saturday Morning

Eager to get up to Santa Fe, I was up early Saturday morning to pick-up my rental car from Hertz. I always like to do something active first thing in the morning, so my first stop was Bandelier National Monument where I planned to do some hiking. The main section of Bandelier is about 45 minutes from downtown Santa Fe, so the drive up from Albuquerque took me about 1 hour and 45 minutes. At Bandelier, I hiked the Main Loop Trail and the Alcove House Trail (totaling roughly 2.2 miles altogether).

The Main Loop Trail features excavated ruins from the Pueblo Native Americans who lived in Frijoles Canyon hundreds and even thousands of years before. A complimentary guide explains the history and significance of each of the archaeological sites along the trail, providing an excellent opportunity for education along the hike. There are even a couple of ladders where you can climb up into cavate dwellings in the cliff face.

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The Alcove Trail, an extension of the Main Loop Trail, includes a series of taller ladders which take you 140 feet up the cliff face to a large alcove. Formerly known as Ceremonial Cave, this alcove once housed a family of 25 Ancestral Pueblo people, and now features a reconstructed kiva (a religious building used by the Pueblo).

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After hiking these two trails, I drove 12 miles towards Santa Fe and stopped at the Tsankawi section of Bandelier National Monument which includes a 1.5 mile loop trail along a mesa. Similar to the earlier hikes, this trail showcases petroglyphs, cavates and an ancestral Pueblo village. However, one of the most interesting things I found was that the Tsankawi village on this trail was left un-excavated, per the preference of the Pueblo descendants (versus the excavated sites on the Main Loop Trail). If the guided pamphlet hadn’t pointed out the locations, I likely would not have realized I was standing at such a historic site. It was really eye-opening to see the contrast between an excavated archaeological site and one that was left undisturbed.

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Saturday Afternoon

From Tsankawi, I drove another 30 minutes to Santa Fe where I arrived at my hotel – Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi. A luxury, boutique hotel located just steps from the center plaza of town, Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi includes modern luxury accommodations reflective of traditional Southwestern design.

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After a full morning of hiking, I was definitely ready for a shower and some nourishment! So, once I had settled my things in the hotel, I set off to explore the central plaza, stopping for a bite of tortilla soup and a margarita at Thunderbird Bar & Grill. It was such a beautiful, sunny afternoon and I was fortunate enough to grab a seat on the restaurant’s second floor patio overlooking the town center.

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Following my late lunch, I walked around town for an hour or so, sightseeing and window shopping. I also visited the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis Assisi (an 1800s-era cathedral) and the historic Loretto Chapel.

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Saturday Evening

On Saturday evening, I decided to dine in my hotel at the Anasazi Restaurant. There were so many delectable-looking food options around town, but given that I was traveling solo, I chose to stick close to home. The decor in the dining room is consistent with the rest of the hotel – elegant comfort with a nod to the Southwest. And the food was absolutely delicious! I treated myself to a special margarita, and a 3-course meal topped off with sopapillas, a traditional New Mexican dessert.

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And after dinner, I took full advantage of my luxurious hotel room – drinking tea and munching on cookies by the gas fireplace, soaking in the large tub with the lavender bath salts, and watching TV on top of a mountain of pillows in my King size bed. This was a “treat yourself” kind of night!

Sunday Morning

I awoke to another beautiful sunny and crisp fall day in Santa Fe, so I headed out for a run first thing. I planned out a trail to pass by a couple of the sites I intended to visit later that morning, and also happened upon a beautiful running trail along the Santa Fe River Park.

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For breakfast, I ordered huevos rancheros (another must have in New Mexico!) for room service which I ate curled up by the fireplace in my hotel room.

Around 10 am, I set off to visit the remaining items on my Santa Fe to do list. My first stop was the local artisans selling jewelry along the Palace of the Governors, where I picked up a beautiful handmade turquoise bracelet.

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Next, I visited the Georgia O’Keefe Museum. Originally from Wisconsin and having lived her early years in NYC, Georgia O’Keefe began visiting New Mexico in the 1920s and made the state her permanent home in 1949. As a result, she drew a lot of inspiration from New Mexican culture, flora and landscape.

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Finally, I walked over to Canyon Road which is home to the majority of Santa Fe’s renowned galleries. While I wasn’t really in the market to purchase any art, it was still enjoyable to walk through the galleries and admire the work by local artists.

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Sunday Afternoon

For my final hour in Santa Fe, I stopped at The Teahouse at the end of Canyon Road. Having had a late breakfast, I wasn’t too hungry, but since I was headed to the airport shortly, I wanted to stop for a snack. The tea menu was multiple pages long, but I went for a traditional Santa Fe Fog, which was an apricot black tea latte, and a homemade blackberry scone, which I must say was literally the best scone I’ve ever had in my life!

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After checking out of my hotel, I bid farewell to Santa Fe and drove back to the Albuquerque Sunport for the next leg of my trip.

I absolutely loved every minute of my time in Santa Fe. The town has so much to offer both within the city limits as well as the environs. And everyone that I met was so friendly and accommodating, this was a really easy place to travel solo. I only wish I had had more time to explore, but I cannot wait to return!

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COMPLETE GUIDE TO WOODSTOCK, VERMONT

Located in southern Vermont in Windsor County, Woodstock is an archetypal New England town, complete with covered bridges, 19th century homes and an authentic pastoral feel. As such, this destination has consistently been ranked one of the most beautiful small towns in America.

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GETTING THERE

If you have a car, Woodstock is a fairly easy drive from major Northeastern cities. From Boston, you can make it there in 2.5 hours, while the trip from NYC will take about 4.5 hours, depending on traffic.

Amtrak also operates trains north to White River Junction, VT which is only a 20 minute drive to Woodstock. The scenery is beautiful but the trip is a bit long from NYC and departure times are limited. For the quickest route, Cape Air runs daily trips from Boston and NYC (Westchester) into Lebanon, NH, which is only a 30 minute drive to Woodstock. The airport in Lebanon is quite small, but it does have rental cars on premises. If you arrive in Woodstock by train or plane, I definitely recommend renting a car to drive around the area.

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WHERE TO STAY

My favorite place to stay is the Woodstock Inn & Resort, which is conveniently located on “the Green” (Woodstock’s main square), just a few minutes from the center of town. Check-out my full review of the Inn here.

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For a less expensive option, The Shire Hotel at the other end of town offers spacious and modern accommodations. And for those looking for more of a homey experience, there are plenty of B&Bs in Woodstock to choose from.

WHERE TO DINE

1. The Red Rooster – The main restaurant in the Woodstock Inn is one of the top places to dine in Woodstock, featuring craft cocktails and farm-fresh cuisine. I always recommend dining here for lunch or dinner (or both!).

 

2. The Mill at Simon Pearce – Located in nearby Quechee, Vermont, diners can visit the Simon Pearce glassblowing workshop and purchase one-of-a-kind glassware in the shop before and after dinner. The restaurant itself offers beautiful views of the Quechee Gorge and the menu features innovative American cuisine with fresh local ingredients. This is a more upscale dining experience and is perfect for a celebratory or romantic dinner.

3. The Prince & The Pauper – Featuring regional cuisine, The Prince & The Pauper is located in the center of town within an easy walking distance from any of the aforementioned accommodations. The cozy atmosphere is perfect for an intimate dinner on a chilly evening.

4. Cloudland Farm – On Fridays and Saturdays, Cloudland Farm opens its doors for dinner, with a delicious prix-fixe menu in a rustic setting.

5. The Mountain Creamery – Comfort food at its best. The Mountain Creamery is a Woodstock-favorite. I love their grilled cheese, tuna melts, soups and of course, homemade ice cream.

6. The White Cottage Snack Bar – Just a few minutes outside of town, this summertime favorite is perfect for a post-dinner ice cream cone (ok so I like ice cream).

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WHERE TO SHOP

There are so many cute little shops to pop in and out of while strolling along the streets of Woodstock, but here are my top recommendations for local goods:

1. Farmhouse Pottery – Founded 4 years ago by a local Woodstock couple, the Farmhouse Pottery workshop and store is just a short drive from the center of town. Visitors can watch the potters at their craft, while browsing the shop for one of a kind pieces. I may have gone a little overboard with my purchases last trip, but every item is just so beautiful and unique!  The owners have a distinct design aesthetic that I absolutely love and can’t wait to showcase in my own kitchen.

 

2. Simon Pearce – While Simon Pearce now operates retail locations in many major cities, I still love to visit the flagship location in Quechee, VT. The shop features gorgeous handblown glass items handcrafted downstairs by the Simon Pearce team. Visitors can also tour the workshop and watch the glassblowers in action. Simon’s son, Andrew Pearce, also sells his handmade wooden bowls in the shop.

 

3. Yankee Bookshop – Yankee Bookshop is Vermont’s oldest continuously operated bookshop, serving Woodstock since 1935. While I tend to read on my kindle more often than not, I still love browsing a small bookshop and flipping through the new releases or staff favorites. And I never walk out of here empty handed.

4. F.H. Gillingham & Sons General Store – Located just off the main thoroughfare in the town of Woodstock, Gillingham’s General Store is a nostalgic step back in time. The shop was first opened in 1886 by Frank Henry Gillingham, and is still to this day, family-owned and operated. True to its name, Gillingham’s is chock full of everything you could want, from food and wine, to cooking utensils, children’s toys and hardware items. But, the most important purchase for any trip to Gillingham’s is a large jug of Vermont’s own Grade A maple syrup!

5. Woodstock Farmer’s Market – The name evokes a Saturday pop-up of local farmers, but in reality the Woodstock Farmer’s Market is a boutique grocery store with a permanent structure. They offer both a wide selection of prepared foods, as well as a fairly size-able grocery and produce section, with a focus on local products.

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WHAT TO DO

If you’re staying at the Woodstock Inn (or frankly, even if you’re not), definitely check out the Activities page of their website for a complete list of area attractions. Below, I’ve also highlighted a couple of my favorite Woodstock experiences.

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1. Hiking Mount Tom – Woodstock is definitely an outdoorsy community and so there are plenty of nearby hiking trails to explore. My favorite is to hike to the top of Mount Tom. There are several trails that lead through this nature preserve and a few that head to the top. The trails are challenging but not overly strenuous and once at the top, you will have beautiful views of the valley below including a great bird’s eye view of the town.

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2. Hitting the slopes – If you’re visiting Woodstock in the wintertime, there are a couple of options for skiing in the area. The closest mountain is Suicide Six, which is operated by the Woodstock Inn and boasts as one of the oldest ski resorts in the country. For larger mountains, Killington Ski Resort and Okemo Mountain Resort are each about a 30 minute (give or take) drive from Woodstock.

3. Visiting farm animals at Billings Farm & Museum – A favorite for kids of all ages, Billings is a live dairy farm offering families the opportunity to learn about life on a working farm, visit with farm animals and watch farmhands milk the Billings cows. The farm also offers a bunch of special events so definitely check the calendar before your visit.

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4. Learning to bake at King Arthur Flour – About a 30 minute drive from Woodstock, sits the town of Hanover, NH (home to Dartmouth College), and just outside of Hanover, is the home of King Arthur Flour. The mecca for any avid baker, King Arthur Flour’s Vermont location includes a cafe (with fresh baked bread and pastries – yum), a store complete with every mix or utensil a baker could dream of, and a baker’s school featuring daily classes. The classes fill up quickly, so definitely book in advance!

I hope you’ll have the chance to visit Woodstock, Vermont soon. This truly is an amazing town with tons of quintessential New England experiences on offer!

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TARTAN & BAGPIPES: EDINBURGH EXCURSION

Following a recent work trip to Cologne, my friend and I decided to take advantage of our European location and hopped on a quick flight to Edinburgh for a long weekend. The capital of Scotland, Edinburgh is home to the Scottish parliament and is the seat of the UK monarchy in Scotland. The city is so picturesque and steeped in history – plus it’s extremely walkable and easy to see in just a couple of days.

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WHERE TO STAY

The Balmoral Hotel is a five-star property located in the center of the city. A hotel since 1902, this historic building originally operated as a traditional railway hotel, due to its proximity to the Waverley Train Station. This is definitely the place to stay if you’re looking for an iconic and luxurious residence during your stay.

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For a slightly more affordable option, I would definitely recommend the Radisson Blu Edinburgh. Smack dab in the center of Old Town, the location could not have been more convenient. The rooms were also extremely comfortable and the hotel offered all of the modern amenities that you could want, including a large breakfast buffet!

WHAT TO DO

1. The Royal Mile. The Royal Mile runs straight through the center of Old Town Edinburgh, from Holyrood Palace up to Edinburgh Castle. Along the stretch, which is actually just over a mile, you will find plenty of shops, pubs, street performers and age-old stone buildings.

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2. Edinburgh Castle. Definitely a must-see for any visitor to Edinburgh! This historic fortress sits atop Castle Rock, a volcanic plug from an extinct volcano system dating to the Carboniferous Age. Tickets to the castle include a free guided tour (generally these start every 15 minutes), which I recommend since there is so much to see here.

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The castle served as a royal residence from the 12th-15th centuries, when it then became a military barracks. It was in a small room in Edinburgh Castle that Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to her son James, who later became James I, the first joint king of England and Scotland. In addition to old chapels, dungeons, bedrooms and banquet halls, the site also houses Scotland’s Crown Jewels as well as the Scottish National War Memorial.

3. Holyrood Palace. Also known as The Palace of Holyroodhouse, this serves as the seat of the monarchy when they are in residence. Admission includes an audio tour, which I definitely suggest since there are no placards at all in the house (we actually had to go back to pick up the headsets when we realized we weren’t learning anything just by walking through!).

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In addition to seeing the great halls and dining rooms where Queen Elizabeth II entertains during her visits to Scotland, the palace also offers plenty of history around the Stuart Dynasty, including the plight of Mary, Queen of Scots. Adjacent to the palace, there is also a beautiful ruin of a cathedral set among very scenic gardens and a stunning view of Arthur’s Seat.

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4. Arthur’s Seat. I could not get over the fact that this amazing hike was so close to the center of town. From our headquarters at the Radisson Blu, the top of Arthur’s Seat – a series of hills (from the same extinct volcano chain) in the center of Holyrood Park – was just about a 2 mile walk. We were lucky enough to visit on an absolutely picture-perfect day where the grass was as green as could be and the sky was brilliant blue. The top of Arthur’s Seat is a great place to enjoy a picnic and take in the impressive views across the city.

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5. Scotch Whisky Experience. Aside from tartan and bagpipes as I noted in the title of this post, Scotland is definitely known for Scotch whisky, which can only be made in Scotland! The Scotch Whisky Experience, located along the Royal Mile just below Edinburgh Castle, offers daily tours explaining the production of this national beverage. They also have a great gift shop and a restaurant and whisky bar called Amber.

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6. Following in JK Rowling’s Footsteps. During the years that J.K. Rowling was writing the Harry Potter series, she lived in Edinburgh and as a result, there are many spots in the city famed for inspiring the stories. As a huge “potterhead” myself, I felt compelled to follow World of Wanderlust‘s advice and see the Top 5 Things To Do in Edinburgh For Harry Potter FansThe Elephant House and The Balmoral Hotel are two locations where J.K. Rowling is reported to have spent significant amounts of time writing the books. While the Elephant House was a bit crowded and touristy as a result of this acclaim, I still snapped a pic from the street.

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I was most excited to visit Greyfriar’s Kirkyard to find Tom Riddle’s grave, which may have subconciously influenced Rowling’s name for Lord Voldemort in the series, as she frequently walked through the Kirkyard on her way home from the Elephant House. From the Kirkyard, you can also glimpse George Heriot’s School, which was said to be a major inspiration for Hogwarts.

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7. Ghost Tour. Beneath the city, there is a labyrinth of vaults that were used for storage by merchants. Long since abandoned, these underground rooms are now said to be haunted and many historical tour operators in the city also offer ghost tours through the vaults in the evening. On our last night in Edinburgh, we did the Evening of Ghosts and Ghouls tour with Mercat Tours. The two hour experience included tales of witchcraft and torture at Mercat Cross along the Royal Mile, candlelit ghost stories in the vaults themselves, and to cap off the evening, a complimentary beverage in Megget’s Cellar. Our tour guide, Louise, was perhaps the best storyteller I have ever heard and I was thoroughly entertained the whole evening!

WHAT TO EAT & WHERE

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of food we found in Edinburgh. I had expected more traditional pub fare, yet instead we found quite an elevated and diverse culinary scene. Along with Scottish Whisky, no visit to Scotland would be complete without trying traditional Scottish dishes, such as:

  • Haggis – Scotland’s National Dish. You don’t really want to know what’s in it but its surprisingly delicious, especially when served with “Neeps & Tatties”, or mashed turnips and potatoes.
  • Smoked Salmon – so much smoked salmon!
  • Fish & Chips – Typically made with Scottish Haddock, the fish is lightly breaded and fried, and served with a side of french fries and peas.
  • Cranachan – A version of a trifle, made of honey, cream, whisky-soaked oats, and fruit.

A couple of our favorite restaurants in Edinburgh were:

  • Lucano & Ross – Just across from The Elephant House on the George IV Bridge, we happened upon this small cafe, featuring a blend of Italian and Scottish cuisine. The decor was too cute! And the food hit the spot.img_5084
  • Whiski – This pub was right across from our hotel and was always packed and smelled amazing. One night we went in and split the fish & chips. While I’m not big on fried food, I have to say the fish was divine!
  • Afternoon Tea at the Balmoral Hotel – I absolutely adore going to afternoon tea at a fancy hotel, especially on vacation. My friend whom I was traveling with had never been to afternoon tea before, and let me tell you, she loved every minute of it. Tea at the Balmoral Hotel is served in the Palm Court. img_5140Aside from tons of delicious food and dozens of unlimited teas to choose from, I was particularly impressed with the Balmoral tea service as they really went above and beyond with a live harpist playing soothing music, big comfy chairs with tons of pillows, and a tradition of adding a glass of champagne to your tea (we had two). Reservations are required and it really is quite a bit of food so arrive hungry! 

  • The Witchery – Right next to the Scotch Whisky Experience sits The Witchery, deemed the most romantic restaurant in Edinburgh. The ambiance here is excellent, and while the food is a bit more expensive than other dining establishments, its worthwhile for a celebration or to cap off the end of your trip.

DAY TRIPS 

While there really is so much to see and do in Edinburgh, I was eager to get out of the city and explore some of the countryside and smaller towns as well.

1. Loch Ness & The Scottish Highlands. Rather than rent a car and worry about driving on the other side of the road, we booked a full day trip to Loch Ness with Highland Explorer Tours. We chose the Taste of the Highlands Tour, which included a gourmet three-course lunch of traditional Scottish fare at The Lovat Hotel in Fort Augustus. The highlands were truly breathtaking and I was so happy we had a chance to visit.

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The downside of this tour is that Loch Ness is quite a trip from Edinburgh, so we spent a fair amount of the day on a bus. However, the upside was that our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable about Scottish history and culture, so we learned a ton! If we’d had a bit more time, I would have booked one of the multi-day tours offered by Highland Explorer so that we could have spent more time out in the countryside, as it truly was so relaxing.

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2. St. Andrews. About an hour from Edinburgh by train (take the ScotRail to Leuchars, where you can hop a free shuttle or grab a taxi to drive the 10 minutes into St. Andrews), St. Andrews makes for a really easy day trip – or even half a day. Known as the golf mecca of Scotland, St. Andrews is also very much a university town, home to the University of St. Andrews, Scotland’s first university which was founded in 1413. dsc00201-1Just on the outskirts of town, you will also find beautiful ruins of the St. Andrews Castle and the St. Andrews Cathedral – which are definitely worth a visit. dsc00226dsc00230

And lastly, if you have time for lunch in St. Andrew’s, head to The Adamson. This was perhaps the best meal we had in Scotland, which makes sense because it was named Scottish Restaurant of the Year in 2015. img_5165The food was so fresh and tasty and the cocktails were so innovative (dry ice anyone?). But my favorite was this warm homemade bread with butter and of course, the sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream – it was just divine!

We had an incredible time visiting Scotland and I can’t wait to come back!

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TOP FIVE: COLOGNE, GERMANY

Cologne, the 4th largest city in Germany (after Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich), is situated in the Western portion of the country along the Rhine River. I recently traveled to Cologne for a work conference and luckily, had a bit of free time to explore. While there isn’t a ton to see in Cologne, it’s definitely worth a visit as part of a German tour. Here are my recommendations for the top 5 things to see and do in Cologne:

dsc000341. Cologne Cathedral (Kolner Dom) is hands down the #1 site to see if you spend any time in Cologne. Construction began on this cathedral in 1248 and it now stands as one of the preeminent examples of Gothic architecture in Europe today. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is also the most visited landmark in all of Germany. The Shrine of the Three Kings is believed to hold the remains of the three wise men and is the reason that the church has served as a pilgrimage destination for Catholics since the middle ages.

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2. Old Town Cologne is very close in proximity to the Cathedral. Though small, it includes a smattering of colorful and charming old buildings that mostly house restaurants, bars and gelato shops. Situated just along the Rhine river and a small park, it’s a delightful place to sit outside for lunch or in the evening and enjoy some fresh air in the center of the city.

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3. Hohenzollern Bridge is Cologne’s very own “Love Locks” bridge. With a wide pedestrian walkway along the side, the bridge offers great views over the Rhine River. The amount of locks on this bridge is also truly astounding and makes for quite a beautiful art display as you walk along.

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Image via Wikicommons

 

4. Gaffel am Dom is one of Cologne’s best known beer halls, featuring Kolsch beer (a light beer native to Cologne) made by the local Gaffel brewery. This beer hall is also very close in proximity to the Cathedral. It’s quite large and is a great place to enjoy a round of Kolsch with a larger group and to sample some traditional German fare. The schnitzel in particular was excellent!

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5. The Lindt Chocolate Museum is located just down the river from Old Town. While this is a bit touristy, who can resist chocolate? I, unfortunately, didn’t have time to tour the museum but I definitely spent some time in the gift shop and purchased a few “souvenirs” if you will. There’s also a great cafe in back with some delectable looking cakes!

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Beautiful sunny day in Cologne along the Rhine River

SKI WEEKEND IN ZERMATT, SWITZERLAND

Following a recent work trip to Barcelona, Spain, my coworker and I headed off for a few days of skiing in the Swiss Alps.

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View of the Swiss Alps from the top of Zermatt

Getting There

Train travel in Europe is so easy and Switzerland doesn’t disappoint. From our flight to Geneva, we boarded a train in the airport that took us straight to Zermatt (well with a transfer in Visp). The total train journey is about 4 hours from Geneva Airport and about 3.5 hours if you fly into Zurich. There are no cars allowed in Zermatt, but the town is small enough to walk through. The train empties right in the center of town so you can easily walk to your hotel. Or, if you have a lot of luggage, most hotels will pick you up via shuttle or horse-drawn carriage.

Where to Stay

We stayed at the Alpenhotel Fleurs de Zermatt, a beautiful hotel very conveniently located to the center of town. The rooms at this boutique hotel were extremely clean and comfortable, with every amenity you could want. Including a private balcony, robes and slippers, rain shower and tub. The staff at the hotel was also incredibly helpful with suggesting ski rental places and making restaurant reservations for us. And last but not least, they have a fabulous spa complete with indoor/outdoor pool, steam room, and sauna which is excellent after a long day of skiing (Side note: definitely try the warm vegetable bullion in the spa – it’s amazing).

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Skiing in Zermatt

Skiing

Zermatt is a big mountain with amazing views of the Mattherhorn. Different from the US, the trails are numbered rather than named, and range from blue to red to black, in terms of difficulty (rather than green to blue to black in North America). The first day, we took gondolas (and a funicular) up to the tippy top of the mountain (over 12,000 feet). We then skied down 12.4 miles into Valtournenche, Italy on the 2nd longest ski run in the world, breaking for a delicious lunch of pasta and wine at Foyer des Guides. The second day, we stopped for cheese fondue and gluhwein at Iglu-dorf, a literal igloo village in the middle of the mountain complete with live music.

Where to Eat

  • Unique Hotel Post – An eclectic spot with casual bar fare or fine Italian dining. Also has several bars and rooms for live music and dancing.
  • Molino – Slightly upscale Italian if you’re in the mood for artisanal pizzas.
  • Chez Gaby – Traditional swiss fare with a focus on grilled meats – absolutely delicious. And don’t miss the chocolate fondue.
  • Laderach – Don’t miss this delicious chocolate shop on the main street – Bahnhofplatz. A great place to buy some edible souvenirs.
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The Matterhorn

EXPLORING DENVER AND ITS ENVIRONS

My friend Alyson and I both recently had a week off between jobs and decided to go on a last minute getaway. In choosing a locale, we were looking for a relatively cheap destination that was easy to get to from multiple cities (she lives in Boston and I live in NYC). Denver popped up on both of our flight searches and we were lucky enough to find flights that arrived/departed within 20 minutes of one another. I’ve flown into Denver many times for ski trips and work trips, but have rarely spent time exploring Denver and its surrounding areas. As I started to research for the trip, I was so impressed by the number of awesome activities, hotels and dining options I came up with. Denver is definitely an up and coming travel destination and I would recommend it to anyone as an easy long weekend getaway.

ESTES PARK

We flew into Denver on a Sunday morning and headed straight from the airport to Estes Park, a town just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park that is only about an hour and a half drive from Denver. In Estes, the Stanley Hotel stands perched above the town.

 

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The Stanley Hotel

A historic hotel dating back to 1909, the Stanley is also known as one of the most haunted places in America and was also the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining (they also filmed the movie there). The hotel is only 20 minutes from the National Park entrance so it’s a very convenient place to stay when visiting. We enjoyed several great meals in the hotel’s restaurant, Cascades, which features local American cuisine and ghost-themed cocktails (try the REDRUM).

We also signed up for the one of the nighttime ghost tours offered at the hotel. While a bit kitschy, it was a fun way to spend the evening and we enjoyed hearing the history of the hotel which was part of the tour.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK

It’s such a treat to find a beautiful National Park so close to a large city, so I definitely recommend at least a day trip. Our favorite hike was a 5-mile roundtrip that we took to Cub Lake. It offered varied terrain, beautiful mountain vistas and a lake destination. Plus, we saw herds of elk, and even two males up close in the woods.

IMG_3710Depending on the time of year you visit, the Bear Lake area is also very popular for hiking, and offers access to several trailheads. But, given the high elevation of that area, it was too snowy for our visit in early November.

BOULDER

Boulder is only about 20-30 minutes’ drive from downtown Denver. And if you’re driving to Denver from Estes Park like we did, it’s on the way and makes a great pitstop for lunch. After our long hike to Cub Lake, the delicious meal we had at The Kitchen was delightful (although there is also a location in Denver, if you miss the trip to Boulder). Boulder also has a great pedestrian mall downtown on Pearl Street, and it’s definitely worth walking around and popping into the cute shops and boutiques. For an afternoon pick-me-up after shopping, definitely stop in at Boulder Baked, for one of their “baked to order” cookies.

DENVER

On to Denver! We stayed at The Art Hotel in the Museum District.  The hotel was very comfortable, conveniently located and a museum in itself! The hotel features several temporary and permanent modern art installations for guests to enjoy – everywhere from the lobby to the elevator. Our first full day in Denver, we headed out in the morning to Core Power Yoga near our hotel for a great yoga class. Then we headed out for lunch and local beers at The Source, an artisan food market in the River North (RiNo) District.

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I definitely recommend the tacos at Comida, a former taco truck serving Southern-influenced Mexican street food. My favorite was the Shrimp and Grits taco. That afternoon, we spent some time shopping on the 16th Street Mall (check out Tattered Cover Book Store for an old fashioned brick and mortar bookstore) and at the boutiques in Larimer Square. In the evening, we took a little drink tour before dinner. Our first stop was The Great Divide Brewing Company for a tasting (they offer 3 oz pours for $1 each!) and our second stop was Terminal Bar, located in the historic ticketing office of Union Station.

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Beer Flight at The Great Divide

For dinner, we headed to ChoLon Bistro and were completely blown away. The flavors were sublime and each dish was more innovative than the next.

On Day 2 in Denver, we got in a quick workout at Pure Barre in Cherry Creek and then went out to brunch at Sassafras. The food was delicious (I had cheesy grits with poached eggs and bacon) but my favorite was the make-your-own mimosa flight, which was just too cute!

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Mimosa flight at Sassafras

That afternoon, we spent hours exploring the exhibits in the History Colorado Center which were so well done. The highlighted exhibit featuring Toys from the 50s, 60s, and 70s was particularly fun, although we also enjoyed the more permanent exhibits around the history and environment of Colorado. The exhibits were very engaging and great for kids, but also fun and educational for adults.

For our final evening, we took a shop owner’s recommendation to visit Williams & Graham, a speakeasy posing as a bookshop in The Highlands.

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The cocktails were fantastic, but the atmosphere was just perfect – complete with walking through a fake bookcase to get to the bar. For dinner, we ate at Linger, which is housed in an old mortuary and features globally-inspired plates. The food was delicious and more wallet-friendly than ChoLon Bistro, although the portions were a bit large. The food is meant to be shared, so with only two people it was a little difficult to taste a variety of things without being overwhelmed by food.

All in all, we had a fabulous trip exploring Denver and its environs!

FOODIE GETAWAY TO PORTLAND, MAINE

While Portland, Oregon has gotten quite a bit of press lately as a hot destination Portland, Maine is also hitting the map – especially on the foodie circuit. While Maine conjures up images of rugged coastline, blueberry picking and quaint villages, Portland – only a 2 hour drive from Boston – has a bit of a hipster vibe, not unlike the Portland of the West Coast. I recently took a trip up to Portland, Maine in July. And, if making the drive from Boston as I did, I definitely recommend a pitstop in Ogunquit for a stroll along the Marginal Way Cliff Walk and possibly lunch at one of the many seafood restaurants in “Perkins Cove” (the starting point for the Cliff Walk).

Portland has many activities to choose from – paddleboarding or kayaking along the coast, brewery tours, and shopping along the historic cobblestone streets, but the highlight of my trip was the food. My top spots were:

  1. The Portland Hunt & Alpine Club – offering craft cocktails, gourmet popcorn, and Scandinavian small bites

    Cocktails and Popcorn at the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club
    Cocktails and Popcorn at the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club
  2. Union Portland – a new farm to table spot in The Press Hotel
  3. Duckfat – sandwiches, milkshakes and fries. Known for their fabulous poutine – a must!

    Poutine at Duckfat
    Poutine at Duckfat
  4. Central Provisions – small plates and punch bowls for sharing. Definitely worth checking out for brunch as well (opens at 11 am) – and be sure to order the cornbread skillet.
  5. Holy Donuts – Made with real Maine potatoes (!), these donuts come in a multitude of flavors and are nothing short of delicious
  6. Eventide Oyster Co. – a favorite for oyster lovers, but don’t miss their signature lobster roll served warm in a brown butter sauce.

    Lobster roll at Eventide Oyster Co.
    Lobster roll at Eventide Oyster Co.
  7. Slab – a nice spot for groups with outdoor seating, live music and giant slabs of pizza.