Christmas in New York

Well it’s official!  The Rockefeller Christmas Tree has been lit, holiday tunes are playing on loop and the air is a little extra crisp.  Christmas in New York City is a magical time of year for me.  When I moved down to Philly I told Scube that every year he has to come up to NYC with me and be at my whim.  Fortunately, he’s been very obliging, but can you blame him?  Millions of people (over 5 million!) flock to the Big Apple this time of year and while there are the typical “must do’s”, I’d like to offer a list with some of the usual suspects and some not so usual.

The obvious (but no less lovely)

  1. The Tree!!  Millions of tourists swarm Rockefeller Plaza during the day time to catch a glimpse of this iconic tree, but I prefer stealing a glance at night.  With Saks Fifth Avenue across the way lit up as well, avoid the larger crowds with very little wiggle room, and take a stroll by the tree after dinner time, you won’t regret it.
  2. The windows!  Saks, Bloomingdales, Barneys, Lord and Taylor, Bergdorf Goodman and Macy’s all are known for their windows.  I personally, like to hit Saks, Bloomies, and Barneys, again in the night time.  Fifth Avenue is a disaster during the holidays and you’ll spend more time trying to dodge people or waiting in line than you will enjoying the view.
  3. Take in a show, be it the Rockette’s at Radio City Music Hall (who can resist those legs?), the Nutcracker at Lincoln Center, or one of Broadway or Off Broadway’s finest, you’ll shell out some cash but you will always leave with a smile on your face.
  4. Holiday Markets are all over the city, from Columbus Circle, to Bryant Park, to Union Square and Grand Central Station, you’re apt to stumble upon one of these while you roam through the city.  Every year I make Bryant Park a must, but that’s not to say the others aren’t great either.  Pick one, especially since they’re all in great areas for exploration.
  5. Go Ice Skating, but not in Rockefeller Center.  Skating on the iconic rink might be on your bucket list, but it’s expensive.  After you pay for a rental, the privilege to skate, and a lock for your stuff, you’re looking at almost a $50/pp investment.  Skip Rockefeller and either skate at Central Park’s Wollman Rink – the views are INCREDIBLE, or skate at Bryant Park where it’s free to skate with cheaper rentals and lock costs.

The Not So Obvious

To me, December and Christmas mean warm gooey cookies and hot chocolate.  If you’re looking to escape the cold, here are a few spots that will warm your hands, feet, and nose.

  1. City Bakery.  Holy hot cocoa.  It’s so rich and decadent, get a small, you won’t be able to finish a large (I can’t and I can down A LOT of chocolate with zero digestive consequences).  Once finished head over to the holiday markets in Union Square.
  2. Jaques Torres is a chocolate God amongst men.  And you can warm up in various locations around NYC with a rich hot chocolate and a warmed up chocolate chip cookie.
  3. Levain Bakery.  Nestled in a small shop on the Upper West Side is the bakery with the greatest cookies you will ever eat.  In fact, they won Throw Down with Bobby Flay and for damn good reason.  Afterwards stroll downtown to Columbus Circle for some holiday shopping.
  4. If you’re looking for something more sophisticated, try high tea at one of these spots.  You can usually pay a little extra if you’d like to add some champagne in the mix as well, and who doesn’t want a little champagne?

Now, if you’re feeling adventurous and want to escape Manhattan, I offer a few suggestions that will make you ooh and ahh.

  1. The New York Botanical Gardens (located in the Bronx, but easily accessible via public transportation) holiday train show is stuff of legend, but now they’ve added an adult (think 21+…there will be booze) with their Bar Car Nights.  Included in the price of admission ($35 for non-members), is a complimentary cocktail, a view of the train show, ice sculpting, live music, fire shows, etc.  So basically the kitchen sink of holiday awesome.
  2. Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights section goes all out for Christmas, and I mean all out.  While it’s an hour from the center of Manhattan via public transportation, free walking tours (or paid bus tours) are available to see this stunning display of all things Christmas lights.

What is your favorite thing to do in New York at Christmas?

 

Put a bird on it

“The dream of the 90s is alive in Portland.” – Portlandia.

As Scube and I sat in a neighborhood bar in the Nob Hill section of Portland, an eccentric British woman named Jenny asked us what made us come to Portland, and more importantly, how did we end up here, at Nobby Nobby Nobby? The latter, we needed a bathroom, the former, well, we had never been. And after a work trip to San Francisco, Portland was just a quick flight away, so why not?

What I had known of Portlandia going in was great food, an excessive liberal population, plenty of rain, and a diverse landscape. I was pumped, despite the awful weather report.   On our itinerary, the beautiful Multnomah Falls and scenic drive, as well as Mount Hood and the Timberline Lodge (our first snow of the season!!), and finally two full days exploring the city. And Scube and I don’t just explore, we attack (metaphorically speaking).

Upon arrival, we were greeted with some of the best city public transportation I have ever seen. While the city is incredibly accessible on foot (we did that too), the public transportation was so smooth and easy to use. A day pass on the Max and Street Car will run you $5, whereas a one-way fare is $2.50, and good for 2.5 hours after purchasing. At all stops, we found that many of the tickets come out pre-validated, making it incredibly efficient to hop on and hop off. And I loooooove efficiency. I used to be a consultant after all.

In the city, here is a quick rundown of the must-see sites:

  • Powell’s Book Store. Where brick and mortar bookstores have suffered in the age of Amazon, Powell’s is large, thriving, and a wonderful place to get lost and escape the cold drizzle.
  • The Rose Garden. Even in November, there were still a few luscious looking roses to be found, as well as an incredible view of the city.
  • The Brew Scene. Both coffee and beer, the city is littered with breweries (Deschutes, Bridgeport, to name a few) and artisan coffee shops.
  • Food carts, food carts, food carts! Portland has a thriving food cart scene taking up parking lots and emanating the most enticing of food smells.
  • The Art Museum. An architectural wonder filled with a collection of modern art to die for.
  • Lady Portland. She is NOT Poseidon as I had actually thought.
  • Farmer’s Markets. Literally one for every day.
  • The forest. I love when you can escape a city in the city itself. Lush growth, mile high ferns, and dozens of trails await just a short walk from the street car.
  • The shopping. From high end name brand store so small boho boutiques littered with birds, I could have shopped for days…if Scube would let me!
  • The Salt & Straw. Incredible ice cream, though depending on timing you may have a long wait. What I loved, this organic, farm to table ice cream shop wasn’t too uppity for sprinkles (THANK GOD).
  • Neon signage. Neon signs are everywhere and I ate them up. Right over the Burnside Bridge is the beautiful Portland Oregon neon sign greeting visitors in Old Town Portland, a stone’s throw from Voodoo Donuts.
  • Voodoo vs. Blue Star Donuts. After sampling both, Voodoo Donuts was the ultimate winner for me and Scube. Bigger, badder, cheaper. We went twice, and both times, thanks to our east coast jetlag aka early wake-up time, we avoided the lines. Keep in mind Voodoo Donuts is open 24 hours, so whenever the mood for a light sugary treat hits, Voodoo will be waiting. But be careful, that area is not the most savory in the city.
  • Rent a car and get outside the city (separate post to come)!
  • Go see where Tonya Harding trained!  Well this one might be just me, but as a figure skater growing up in the 80s and 90s, Tonya Harding was the tits, until of course she hired her ex-husband to take Nancy Kerrigan out with a tire iron.  But, you can see where Tonay Harding trained, in the mall in Portland near the Convention Center.  The must under served tourist attraction EVER, and the cherry on top of my Oregon visit.
     

Portland is a beautiful city with literally the nicest people I have ever met. I have never felt so welcomed by a city’s people than I did in Portland. But like any city, Portland is not without its faults and seedy neighborhoods. Be smart, ask where to go and not to go, and overall enjoy what the city has to offer, because it’s a lot. And remember, put a bird on it.

 

SPG Keyless, my First Go ‘Round

I had missed an opportunity a few months ago to try out SPG’s new keyless feature, and was super excited when I realized I could try it out at the Aloft in Portland, OR.

So what is SPG Keyless? Glad you asked!

In certain SPG properties, the Aloft, Element, and W hotels, you can check-in via your smartphone using the SPG app as long as you have a valid credit card on file. When your room is ready, the app will send you a push notification (around the same time I received a bank push notification that my card had been charged). Once received, using the app again, you walk with all of your luggage straight to your room, hold your phone up to the keypad and voila, like magic the door opens.

I loved this feature. Not having to wait in-line to check-in, especially after a long day of travel was fantastic. It was also great knowing that my phone was the key. How many times have you misplaced a room key, or worse, had it next to your cellphone or credit card to get up to your room to find your key no longer works? This removes those inconveniences, especially in today’s world where my phone is literally an extension of my body.

There are however some cons.  When setting up keyless entry for a particular stay, you need to enter your presumed arrival time (fairly standard), but as a result, the app and hotel stick to that time.  There is no wiggle room.  Often times plan change, and I do love the flexibility and that little bit of luck that is involved in showing up to a hotel early to find that they do have a room available well before check-in time. In this instance, I lost the flexibility to do so. And while that wasn’t a deal breaker, I can imagine taking a red eye to an overseas destination, desperate for a hot shower and having to wait.

One of the things I did not try out with this keyless entry is the use of the gym. After checking with SPG, the keyless entry seems to only work for your hotel room at the moment, not the fitness facilities, so you will need to swing by the front desk for a key if you want to use those amenities.

With that being said, the pros outweigh the cons (and are those really cons?) and I would gladly use this feature going forward.

spg keyless_USE

Vacation Blooper – Blue Grotto Snuggles

Being American, I love to hug, snuggle, cuddle, whatever.  But as one of my favorite movies so aptly puts it, “No hugging, dear. I’m British. We only show affection to dogs and horses”*, not all cultures are as huggy as well, me.  So why is this important?  Well, entering the Blue Grotto in Capri involves very close quarters potentially with strangers.

When the seas are gentle and the Blue Grotto is open, about 20 – 25 row boats are ready outside the grotto waiting to accept passengers from other boats or from those taking the stairs (like moi).  Since the physical entry to the grotto itself is fairly small, everyone, including the boatmen have to lay completely flat upon entry and then can pop back up once inside the glittering blue expanse.  Fast forward to me and Scube getting in a boat with an Austrian couple in their late 40s.

Knowing we had to lay down I said to the woman, “It’s okay, don’t worry about it, we’ll all be friends here after this experience!” with a huge grin on my face.  Her face however was ashen and horrified.  She flat out refused to lay on me.  She cowered in a small nook on the boat inches from my spread legs and cuddle ready arms and at the last moment tipped her head back to avoid injury.  Once inside the grotto, her no touching policy continued.  And I get it, not everyone wants to lay on a young, chesty American woman who’s bosom is ready to welcome anyone with open arms in these circumstances, but in the spirit of new experiences, would my breasts have killed her?  Or maybe they would have?  We will never know.

blue grotto

 

*The cult classic Amanda Bynes film What a Girl Wants featuring Colin Firth…swoon.

Pic of the Week – Florence, Italy

On my first trip to Italy I completed the typical Rome/Florence/Venice itinerary.  I had the expectation that Venice would be my favorite of the three, as it is so unique and unlike any other city in the world.  However, Florence came out on top with Rome a close second.  Behold, the Duomo.

duomo
Getting ready for a climb to the top!

The Wild West Part III – Antelope Canyon

To recap the trip this far, we ate our way through Vegas, spent a night in Utah, and I felt like I pseudo cheated death at Horse Shoe Bend, and were now en route to Antelope Canyon.  Funny thing is, we haven’t even gotten to the main event yet!  The main event on this Wild West road trip was supposed to be the Grand Canyon, and yet, by the time we got there, Bryce and Antelope had completely overshadowed the awesomeness that is the Grand Canyon.  Now, that’s not to say that the Grand Canyon wasn’t totally awe inspiring, because it was, but Antelope Canyon is a photographer’s dream and a natural beauty and wonder all unto itself.  It will simply take your breath away.

A little history for you. Antelope Canyon is on Navajo land close to Horse Shoe Bend in nearby Page, Arizona.  Canyon in this context is not what at least I would expect it to be.  Antelope is considered a slot canyon which very simply put, means you’re almost walking into a knot in a wood floor or a tree.  It is not a wide gaping space, but more a narrow area where as a spectator you’re at the bottom looking up, without much of a vantage point to look down.

My husband and I chose to take a Navajo tour in Lower Antelope Canyon.  To get into the canyon we had to walk down a very steep staircase into the abyss.  Small children were able to do this so don’t be deterred!  As we walked through the canyon the colors, waves, and artistry carved out by water was incredible.  Since words cannot do this place justice, below are photos taken with my iPhone, with no additional filters doing the work.  Enjoy and then look me in the eye and tell me you don’t want to visit!

antelope5Looking up into Lower Antelope Canyon

antelope4Contrast of light and dark waves in Lower Antelope Canyon

antelope3

Purple and Blue Waves in Lower Antelope Canyon

antelope2

Our Navajo Guideantelope1I love the contrast of the ridges, waves, and puncture marks, Lower Antelope Canyon

antelope9

The pink colors truly make me happy and calm

antelope8

Capturing the beauty of the moment

antelope6

On our way out – there’s my handsome husband!

antelope7

Slot canyon, totally dating myself here but the perspective reminds me of Honey I Shrunk the Kids

Pic of the Week!

If you follow me on Instagram @appetite4travel (please do!), my first ever post was the Plaza de Espana in Seville, Spain.  I’ve posted two pictures from there and I have about 100 more on my phone, let alone the DSLR camera.  So I thought it only fitting, since it’s my photographic muse, to give you the first ever pic of the week, from the Plaza de Espana.

Plaza de Espana
Plaza de Espana, Sevilla Spain. Taken with my iPhone 5

How to plan the perfect travel itinerary

While it seems that travel advisers and travel agencies are almost completely a thing of the past – there is an art to crafting the perfect travel itinerary.  My husband and I fancy ourselves experts, and take turns planning our own trips.   In fact, firing up an excel document with a new location listed in the top left hand corner is a total turn-on.  It means something amazing and wonderful to look forward to is coming, and I get to plot out every last minute of it.

Planning the perfect trip varies for everyone, but hopefully I can provide you with a brief, yet effective framework for making your next trip, the BEST trip.

Lesson #1: Cram smart, or don’t cram at all

Don’t ever try to do too much.  My vacation motto is “act like you’ll never ever be coming back here” which usually means we try to cram a lot into a small amount of time, however, there is an art to the cram.  My husband and I learned a tough lesson about 8 years ago on our trip to Costa Rica.  We tried to see 4 different location in 8 days.  While this might be better accomplished in Europe, in Costa Rica where roads aren’t always the best to travel on proved a challenge.  We had bitten off more than we could chew and paid the price.  The result of cramming is that you lose time in the places you love (and of course you don’t realize you love it until you get there), and spend too much time en route, rather than on the beach, on the streets of a city, or just people watching in a cafe.  If you’re going to cram, make sure you do it in a place like an island (ex: see 5 beaches – love you St. John!), or Europe where you know transit will be easy between cities.

Lesson #2: Prioritize

Set reasonable expectations.  Unless you are spending a month in one place, you won’t be able to see everything.  Pick and choose attractions, restaurants, museums, etc. and prioritize.  While my motto is basically live like there’s no tomorrow when visiting a new place, that’s not always the case.  You may return to that location, but if not, make sure you see what’s important to you and will round out your travel.

Lesson #3: Don’t be afraid of tours

How many times on this blog (probably twice at this point) have I raved about the walking tour.  Well go on a food tour, a wine tour, any type of tour that will help you see a bunch of a new fun things.  They cover a lot of ground, and if it’s not a walking tour, they’ll manage the travel and connections, normally picking you up from your hotel.  It’s a win/win.  Sure you could see Pompeii and Vesuvius on your own, but wouldn’t it be nice to arrive at the site with your entry fare already paid for and with an awesome guide to boot?

Lesson #4: Manage connections

Getting from point A to point B is not always easy or fun, but when planning a trip, before you even book, determine if the hotel offers connections from the airport if you’re not renting a car.  Determine where the key sites are that you want to see, and if public transportation is available or if renting a car is more cost effective.  If you are relying on public transportation print the schedules before you go. While it’s so old school – having this information handy, especially with international roaming fees (I know those are being relaxed), but it’s easier to pull out a piece of paper abroad than having to manage from your phone.  Sounds crazy I know, but it’s true.

Lesson #5: You can make everyone happy

This is remarkably not as tall of an order as it seems.  After a lot of trial and error, my husband and I finally asked each other, are you a Cam or are you Mitchell?  If you’re not familiar with that great Modern Family episode, Cam pretends to be an enthusiastic on-the-go traveler who would rather be out and about than relax.  However, turns out Cam would rather lay by the pool, and who doesn’t?  I’m the Cam in this relationship and striking a balance between activities and relaxation has taken some effort, but it’s doable.  While you shouldn’t compromise on sites that are important to you, more often than not, everyone can appeased with a littl e ice cream and a lay on the beach (or maybe that’s just me).

Lesson #6: Eat smart, eat great

Ask for a free breakfast.  When booking a hotel, inquire if they offer free breakfast.  This is usually a key metric I use when book a hotel.  Will I be getting free food?  Normally, hotel breakfasts cost per person anywhere between $13-$20…for breakfast.  While it’s the most important meal of the day think about what milk, cereal, eggs, toast, or fruit costs you at home.  You probably spend $2o over the course of 2 weeks to a month on breakfast, not per day.  A free meal saves money, plain and simple.

Stock your fridge!  If your room has one (and if it doesn’t, you can call down and ask for one) – hit a local supermarket and buy some of your favorite snacks, items and booze (never poach the mini bar!).  This will go a long way to helping you stay within a reasonable budget while traveling, and can also be a fun way to pack a picnic.  What’s better than hitting up a beach or a park in a big city with a baguette, some wine, cheese, and a few meats and enjoying the afternoon sun?

Finally, food is often a large part of the travel experience (at least with me, clearly), when working with a concierge on restaurant reservations, don’t be afraid to speak up for what you really want.  The local hole in the walls are famous with locals for a reason.  They’re damn good and they’re cheap.   Where applicable, make restaurant reservations in advance of your travel as well.  There are certain destinations where famous restaurants are well known, and it can never hurt to reach out to make a reservation prior to your stay, especially if your trip is also celebrating a special occasion.

Lesson #7: Don’t be afraid to call an audible

I love to plan.  I’m a planner, and I LOVE my spreadsheets.  If you have an organized listing of all of your travel options, activities, restaurants, etc., you won’t be bummed if say mother nature gets in the way.  Things happen and that’s okay.  Hit another item on your list, and roll with it.  Once you’re on vacation there’s not much else you can do but make the best of a new and exciting situation.

Lesson #8: Do something different

It’s easy to go on vacation and not take risks or try something new, but you may be missing out on so many fun and different experiences.  For example, in Provence I decided I wanted to take a cooking class.   While many classes were incredibly expensive, my husband and I found a wonderful cooking class right in the chef’s home.  This created an intimate experience with great food and plenty of laughs.  If cooking isn’t your thing, look for different activities that will help you engage with the locals or one that just pushes you out of your comfort zone.  I never in a million years thought I’d go hot air ballooning, but sure enough it happened and created one hell of a memory.  A vacation is a time to relax, but it’s also your own personal adventure.  Come home with something other than a tan to talk about.

Lesson #9:  Use your peers!

We live in a sharing economy.  The internet has put so much power in the hands of us, the everyday consumer and traveler.  I love using sites like TripAdvisor for hotel reviews and activity suggestions, and even restaurants.  When I’m in a location and using wifi – I often times pull up Yelp! for the best restaurants nearby, and have found some amazing gems while on vacation.  When people are reviewing and being frank about their experiences, they will never ever lead you astray.  Use ’em!

Lesson #10: Don’t forget to take it all in

There are people in this world that cannot travel, either they choose not to or cannot afford it.  Every trip you take, large or small, sit back and relish the fact that you’re doing something special, new, and cool.

Add a comment below if you agree/disagree with my lessons or want to see one of our travel itineraries!

The Wild West Part One

So I have something really embarrassing to admit.  If you read the About Me section you’ll note that I’d only been on an airplane once before the age of 18.  It gets worse. In the United States I hadn’t been outside the eastern timezone until after I graduated college.  I KNOW.  WHAT was I doing with the first 22 years of life??*

Needless to say, with that in mind, my boyfriend/fiance/now husband and I instituted a policy to help me see the good ole fashioned USofA.  The thought was (now is) each year we take one domestic and one international trip, that way I can see all the beauty this country has to offer without sacrificing a stamp on my passport in the process (I love my passport stamps).

After much thought, we planned out a 10 day wild west road trip, starting in swinging Las Vegas.

vegasI didn’t really know what to expect from Las Vegas, and honestly, I didn’t expect to like it.  The only thing I knew going in, apart from the obvious, was that I must choose wisely when picking a place to buffet.  I had no idea that buffet culture was such a thing!  After extensive research, I decided that the Wicked Spoon inside the Cosmopolitan would be the one.  I had read that it was the best buffet in town, and as a result, Caesars spent millions of dollars to create its own rival buffet.  (Note: next time I must check out Caesars.)  After eating fried chicken, waffles, fruit, ice cream, french toast, and pancakes for breakfast (yikes!), my husband and I slowly rolled each other out of the Cosmopolitan and onto the rest of the strip.  And we walked the heck out of that strip.  I’m fairly confident my Jawbone Activity Tracker tapped out at well over 30,000 steps.  Does that undo the breakfast ice cream?  Probably not, but it certainly made us feel better!

vegas 2My husband and I aren’t gamblers, so we saw a Cirque du Soleil show (he was not to be dragged to Britney, sad face) and checked out the brand spanking new Linq.  It had just opened a few days prior to our visit and we were thrilled to be some of the first on the holy roller!  It was so new that we had the entire compartment to ourselves.  We watched the beautiful Bellagio fountains from above and just took it all in.

After a night at the MGM Grand in Vegas (which I highly recommend), we hopped into our rental car (a fab little Prius), and it was time to check out the Hoover Dam, and then march onward into Utah and Arizona.  Granted, there was a pit stop in Lake Las Vegas – but we’ll gloss over that for now, review to come later.

Stay tuned for part two, as our foray into red rocks, cacti and bucket list items are just beginning!

*Answer: Exploring the eastern seaboard.