Planning a Memorable 1st Birthday Party!

Your little munchkin is turning one – wow, what an accomplishment for you and your baby!  You navigated so much during their first year; so much that was new to you and them and you got through it together.  Now it’s time to celebrate!  If you’re like me, you probably have very little time to plan but want to make the first birthday special.  I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan which is not so conducive to having a party in your home like many would in the suburbs, but I am fortunate to be surrounded by some terrific play spaces.

We decided on the New York Kids Club on 68th and Amsterdam, which couldn’t have been more convenient for us, as it is around the corner!  And on top of that, their staff made the planning and organizing so much easier than I anticipated.   Of course I was a nervous first time mom trying to plan the perfect day for my daughter and our close friends.  They say the first birthday is always more for the adults than the kids, but I wanted everyone to have a great time.  From my first conversation with Selah, I knew I was in great hands.  She gave me options for the party – the standard package included an hour and a half of open play, organized songs, parachute play and pizza and cake time.  They also offered to order the pizzas and cake and provide decorations, paper goods and even goodie bags for the kids for an additional charge, which cost the same or less than if I had ordered them on my own.  This took a huge burden off of me, knowing all I would have to get were the food and drinks for the adults and some other baby food.

The rest of the staff at NY Kids Club was no short of amazing.  Shane worked with me on the weeks leading up to the party to finalize the details, while Joey reached out two weeks prior and was on site to make sure everything went smoothly the day of.  He was upstairs collecting gifts and giving out goodie bags while the other four party helpers did so much from setting up the food table for the adults to playing with the babies and kids during the open play and organized music, parachute play, bubbles and dance party.   They served the pizza and cake and just overall made sure everything went off without a hitch.   I thought I would be setting up the adult table, but they had everything out before we even got there!  They definitely have it down to a tee which allowed us to relax and enjoy the party. Packing up at the end was just as smooth.  They wrapped and packed everything up for us, which made it really easy to bring home and say goodbye to our guests while they took care of the rest.  We ordered the sheet cake from them and the bakery they use, Carlo’s Bakery, did a nice job and gave us the option to put an image on the cake which came out really cute!  

The play area is one of the best I’ve seen. It is a large room and perfect for a wide variety of ages.  There are  many different areas to climb, a gymnastics area, and so many balls and other toys with which to play. We had kids ages 8 months to 6 years old and everyone had a blast.

We love having a NY Kids Club so close to us.  In addition to throwing birthday parties, they offer a huge array of classes from music, art, theater, and gym to science, math and engineering.  There is also open play, a preschool and summer camp programs.  There are many locations in Manhattan, Long Island City and Brooklyn.

Since we were having a few babies under a year old at the party, I wanted to get some food they could enjoy too.  For that I ordered from Little Spoon. I was introduced to Little Spoon a few weeks ago and my daughter and I  love their organic, vegan, non-GMO baby food! It is custom-tailored and developed by a team of pediatricians, nutritionists and chefs and delivered right to your door step!  It is the perfect on the go nutritious meal.  I love Little Spoon because the little babyblends are fresh, incorporating ingredients to help develop their palate.   Each blend has a nutritional badge to help parents understand how the food connects to the various areas of baby development.  In addition to veggies and fruit, some incorporate things like  white beans, spirulina and hemp. Each little package comes with a spoon, which has been shown to be better for development than using pouches

I also decided to get Eden her own little 6 inch cake from Magnolia Bakery to see what she would do with it. Magnolia was so easy to work with and  used their expertise to offer suggestions for decoration  – cute colorful polka dots that matched her outfit.  They were perfect, as my daughter looked at it and decided to try licking each dot at a time – it was so cute and made for wonderful pictures!  We plan on getting another cake from them for her cake smash photography session which I will post here as well.   They have such a talented bakery artist!

For decorations, I used the NY Kids Club colorful balloons and added a beautiful chalkboard image by CLacey Designs on Etsy. It summed up everything Eden can do at 1 – a great framed picture to have in years to come.   The designer was so easy to work with.  She produced the finished product really quickly and was open to a few revisions I had.  

Overall, I was extremely happy with how the day went.  A lot of work went into it, but it would never have been as special as it was without the assistance of everyone involved.  Every parent wants their child’s first birthday to be special.  So whether you decide to have an intimate gathering in your home for the first birthday or choose a play space, just remember, it will be special because it is your incredible baby turning one and you made it through all the ups, down, giggles and spit ups of the first year!

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HomeAway – Ideal for Family Travel!

We decided to take a trip to Sarasota – only a two hour flight from New York and home to the beach ranked number one in the country – Siesta Key Beach.  This was our first trip that was not to visit family with our baby.  Because of that, we decided to stay  at a vacation rental property so we could have a separate room for our baby to sleep and nap and we would have all of the comforts of home with a full kitchen and washer and dryer so we could prepare her and our meals easily. It also saved us money because we went grocery shopping instead of eating out all the time.

We searched HomeAway.com. They have 2 million unique places to stay worldwide listed on their site.  Our trip was last minute during peak season in Sarasota, so this was also a great option because many hotels were already booked or their rates were out of our budget.  We found a very large home with much more space than we needed for just the three of us, but my in-laws came to visit one night, so it was perfect for all of us.  The house was basically two homes in one with two kitchens and two living rooms, so they could have one end of the house and we could have the other.  Here is the link to the property where we stayed.  https://www.vrbo.com/589863

According to statistics from HomeAway, the beach is the number one destination for vacation home bookers, with Panama City topping the list of HomeAway’s hottest destinations based on overall demand, followed by Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, Alabama, Walton County, Florida, San Diego, Four Corners in the Disney area, and Hilton Head, South Carolina.  Internationally, Paris is currently the number one destination for vacation home rentals followed by London, Rome, Puerto Penasco, Mexico and Florence.  

In addition to the bonus of having all of the amenities of a home while on vacation, for any group that would  normally book more than one hotel room, you’ll save a lot of money.  You’ll also get a ton more space. The average vacation rental home is 1850 sq ft. versus the average hotel room that is 325 sq. ft.  It’s also easy to find a pet-friendly accommodation in most destinations.  You’ll truly enjoy an authentic travel experience.

For more, listen to my radio segment about HomeAway and my trip to Sarasota here:  https://soundcloud.com/dana-barrett-clips/michelle-jersen-baby-biz-expert-on-vacationing-with-your-baby

 
 

Cape Cod with a Six Week Old!

A close girlfriend was getting married in Harwich, MA on Cape Cod and when I realized my baby would be six weeks old at the time of the affair, I didn’t think it would be possible to go. My pediatrician was telling us not to take her to a hotel room which could be filled with germs or to a crowded wedding, and of course the thought of a five hour car ride was daunting.  However, as it got closer and I had a better handle on what my baby was like at that stage, I felt adventurous and wanted to give it a shot.  In addition, I found a great place to stay that made my decision that much easier.

We drove a few hours from New York City and stopped halfway in Mystic, Connecticut, which was a great place for a break to eat.  My husband tried the pizza from Mystic Pizza and I was ever so happy to have oysters from one of the many restaurants on the water, since I had to abstain for nine months.  It’s a great area for walking and taking in the beautiful scenery.  We then got back in the car and drove another couple of hours to Chatham and the Pleasant Bay Village.  When I saw Pleasant Bay Village online, I knew it wasn’t a cookie cutter hotel and had rooms that were perfect for traveling with a family.  With accommodations to suit many needs, they offer efficiencies with a full kitchen, outdoor furniture, and a BBQ grill, as well as standard and  deluxe rooms with two queen beds and a sitting area outside.  All rooms are non-smoking and have air-conditioning, heat, high definition flat screen televisions, small refrigerators, irons, ironing boards, hair dryers, phones, private bathrooms and daily housekeeping.  They are a green property and, utilizing a 22kW photovoltaic array to generate approximately 25% of their annual electricity and a solar thermal system to reduce consumption of natural gas.  They also use non-toxic cleaners which I think is great if traveling with infants.  So many times the hotel room can smell from the products used to clean them.  They have been awarded the Green Leaders Gold Level Certification by TripAdvisor, Cape and Islands Green Verification and are recognized as an Energy Star partner. 

In addition to the meticulously clean and comfortable accommodations, Pleasant Bay Village also offers a heated outdoor pool near a beautiful waterfall, a hot tub surrounded by an Asian inspired rock garden and Japanese maples.  A zen garden sits close to the waterfall and a Japanese Koi pond and makes for a great spot to relax and meditate.  They serve a gourmet breakfast in their lobby which is furnished with 18th century antiques and lunch is served poolside in July and August.

Just five minutes from Chatham center, main street is a great spot to browse boutique shops and enjoy fresh seafood at restaurants such as the Impudent Oyster (and yes, I got amazing oysters here too!).  Be sure to make a reservation for dinner, as it does fill up quickly.  We went for a late lunch around 2:30 which was perfect for our first meal out with the baby! It’s a quieter time than their busy lunch and dinner hours.  Beautiful beaches are also nearby and great for catching the sunset.

All in all, I would recommend Cape Cod as a trip for those at any age!  If you find the right accommodations to make your visit an easy one, you can make it a great family vacation – even if my daughter did cry and had to be taken out during lunch!

The Courtyard Marriott Montvale – My Most Memorable Hotel Visit Ever!

Living in New York City, one doesn’t often think about traveling right over the George Washington Bridge to stay at a hotel in Bergen County, New Jersey.  However, the situation was different during Nor’easter 2017.  I was due to give birth two days prior at the University of Hackensack Medical Center, Pascack Valley in Westwood, NJ and we decided to stay for two night in New Jersey just in case I went into labor and the it was too dangerous to drive from the city. 

I am so glad we found the Courtyard Marriott Montvale.  A quick 35 minutes from the Upper West Side, it is just 15 minutes from the hospital. For days when the weather is nicer, it is also centrally located to Harriman State Park, the Garden State Plaza Mall, the Meadowlands Complex, West Point and Woodbury Commons.  For those looking for a true getaway, there are a some great golf courses and spas in the area as well.

The sheek hotel is very comfortable with 184 modern deluxe guest rooms, fitness center, an outdoor pool, billiard room, and spacious meeting space for businesses. Six luxury suites offer a whirlpool bath, wet bar, microwave and separate bedroom.  There is the lively Fire and Oak restaurant next door which is open late for food and drinks.  They also have a beautiful banquet space for special occasions.

For your next staycation or affordable hotel close to both New York City and New Jersey attractions, click here for more information and to book your stay at the Courtyard Marriott Montvale!

Update: This article was written before I labored in the hotel room for 10 hours!  I woke up at 6am the day we were supposed to check out and started having intense contractions.  My doula met me at the hotel and everything went smoothly! I was so thrilled the hotel staff was so nice and generous in asking if I needed anything and allowing us to stay until we left for the hospital at 4pm!  I couldn’t have asked for a better laboring experience in a comfortable hotel with a nice bed, shower and wonderful staff!

Honeymoon in the Seychelles

The Seychelles is a gorgeous group of 112 islands located off of East Africa. For many Americans, they are an unknown treasure. However, when searching for a tropical destination for a honeymoon that is Zika free, these islands are one of the very few destinations without an outbreak. A perfect honeymoon spot, the weather is mostly always in the 80s during the day and 70s at night with a warm tropical breeze. While the archipelago is made up of 112 islands, there are a two or three bigger islands and a few small ones most people visit. Just a six hour plane ride from Johannesburg to the main island of Mahe´ aboard Air Seychelles, we chose to split our time between three amazing resorts, the Hilton Seychelles Northolme Resort and Spa on Mahe´ and the Hilton Labriz Resort and Spa and La Belle Tortue on Silhouette Island. 

If you are looking for a very romantic, adults only and secluded getaway with the option to see attractions on the big island, the Hilton Seychelles Northolme Resort and Spa is the place to stay. We never left the resort because it had what we needed – the gorgeous Indian Ocean, perfect for snorkeling, and views of the North Island. The villa is also incredibly romantic with an outdoor terrace, perfect for stargazing at night and relaxing and sipping a drink during the day. There are also suites available with your own private pool. The spa consists of three luxurious rooms with sweeping views, perfect for a couple’s treatment or a little downtime to yourself. The resort also offers free shuttles to other beaches around the island. The beauty of this and the other Hilton property on Silhouette Island is that you can choose half or full board, so when you get there most or all of your meals will be included so you can order freely off the menus. The food is top quality with a Creole influence.

Even though the Hilton Seychelles Northolme Resort and Spa is located on the main island, it does feel secluded. However, if you want the private island experience, take the ferry that Hilton offers to Silhouette Island and stay at the Hilton Labriz Resort and Spa, where you will be staying at the only resort on the island. The only other property on the island is the quaint La Belle Tortue. They are completely different in feel and offerings. The Hilton Labriz Resort and Spa is a family friendly resort but you can definitely find plenty of spots away from the kids to enjoy your own time. There are villas with ocean views as well as ones with your own private lush jungle in the back that includes a pool, outdoor shower, and hammock. There are a variety of restaurants so if you are staying on the island for many days, you’ll always have something new to eat. Gran Kazz is set on the plantation where the former owners of the island, the Dauban family, used to live. They serve traditional Creole dishes that reflect the culture of the island including curries and fish wrapped in banana leafs. The other dining options include a Teppanyaki and Japanese restaurant, Italian and a buffet with a different type of cuisine each night. With a scuba shop and activity center on site, you can take advantage of scuba and snorkeling day trips, private beach excursions and picnics and a Creole cooking class where you will cook your own lunch. Tucked away at the end of the resort is the spa, with an outdoor jacuzzi and plunge pool to use before or after treatments. The treatment rooms for both couples and individuals sit atop the lush surroundings. The beach on Silhouette Island is calm and shallow for many feet out into the ocean, perfect for floating with a drink or collecting shells.  

Just a short walk from the Hilton Labriz Resort and Spa sits the very quaint and friendly La Belle Tortue. Managed by Julie and Morgan, they make you feel welcome the second you step off the ferry or come over from the Hilton. Some people choose to stay at both properties for a few days each to experience the island differently. With just fifteen guests on property, they are a luxury lodge that caters to each guest. The dining experience is intimate with Morgan cooking all the meals and Julie serving. The food is prepared to your dietary needs and preferences and the dishes are amazing. You can tell much thought and preparation is put into each one. Morgan comes from a culinary background. In addition to his title as general manager and chef at Belle Tortue, he is the owner and partner of the restaurant, Les Epicuriens, located in Nice on the French Riviera. On property, you can enjoy dishes such as octopus carpaccio and croquette, accrues shark on a red sauce pepper with sweet potatoes and plantains. You’re in for a culinary treat at this boutique property.

So if you’re looking for a romantic tropical getaway, check out the Seychelles. If you have the time, pair it with a few days in South Africa for the perfect mix of relaxation and a safari adventure!

A South African Honeymoon

Africa is a huge continent – it covers the same surface as thirteen countries including the United States, China and India and the whole of Eastern Europe. With just two weeks for a honeymoon, our itinerary just scratched the surface, but it incorporated the ocean, mountains, luxury safari lodges and gorgeous resorts around the country and in the Seychelles. The itinerary was quite ambitious, as one can easily spend two weeks just in Cape Town or are on a safari, but we wanted a taste of it all, including the total relaxation of a beach destination. With the Seychelles under a five hour flight from Johannesburg, it made for the perfect addition to our South African adventure.

Cape Town, South Africa is a spectacularly scenic destination of mountains and ocean filled with fresh cuisine and the extensive picturesque wine regions of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek about an hour from the city center. There is so much to see and do that one can spend a few days or up to a couple of weeks exploring the regions surrounding the city. With so many options and the fact that the driving is done on the opposite side of the road, we decided to hire Kabura Travel, a tour company specializing in tours in and around the city. Kabura was started by a couple, Remondy and Allain Kabura. They offer both group and personalized tours and guests will travel in luxury Mercedes-Benz vehicles. They offer tours of the Cape Peninsula, the Winelands, Table Mountain, as well as historical city tours, safaris, shark cage diving, whale watching in Hermanus, the Cape Agulhas (the southernmost point of Africa), the Garden Route.  They also offer tailor-made tours. 

With three days to tour, we covered a lot of ground with their experienced and knowledgeable guides. Day one consisted of a visit to seal island, a fun ferry ride to see the seals in their natural habitat, a stroll through the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, a stop at Signal Hill to watch the beautiful sunset, plus a bonus double rainbow, and lunch at a terrific local African spot in town called Marco’s. We tried an oxtail curry, a meat plate consisting of ostrich, kudu and springbok. On day two, we took a cable car to the top of Table Mountain for fabulous views of Cape Town and took the peninsula tour around the Cape of Good Hope and to the Cape Point lighthouse with breathtaking views of the ocean and mountains. For the third day, we bargained for some souvenirs to take home at Greenmarket Square in the city and then drove out to the gorgeous wine regions of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek.   One can spend an entire day or a few sampling the various South African wines of the region.

Camps Bay is a great area to stay in while exploring Cape Town. It’s a gorgeous region overlooking the beach and just fifteen minutes from city central and easily accessible to all attractions. We split our time between the Twelve Apostles and the boutique hotel, Atlanticview Cape Town. Twelve Apostles offers an extensive hot and cold breakfast buffet including raw oysters one can enjoy overlooking the ocean. Also on property is a cinema, two restaurants, a bar and wonderful spa consisting of a full line of treatments as well as a dead sea pool, which allows you to float to relaxation, a hot tub and plunge pool, all included with a treatment. It is the perfect spot for a singles rejuvenation or a romantic couples experience. Twelve Apostles is part of the Red Carnation group of hotels which pride themselves on luxury and giving back. They are part of The Travel Cooperation and the Tread Right Foundation, a not-for-profit, working to ensure the environment and communities we visit remain vibrant for generations to come. If you have additional time to spend in the area, Bushmanns Kloof is a five star wildness and wellness retreat and just a couple of hours from Cape Town, and the Oyster Box is a gorgeous property in Durban.

For a more personalized experience, the Atlanticview Cape Town Boutique Hotel is second to none. With their sunset view duplex suites including a pool outside the room overlooking the water and their attention to detail in both the decor and their service, they will make your trip a memorable one. Owned by Greg Boki and Ranier Pires, they have thought of everything to make their guests feel at home.  Many of the staff’s management are also registered tour guides with a fleet of range rovers and Mercedes – Benz and can put together itineraries based on your interests. Greg has also compiled a list of his favorite restaurants and wineries in the region. We took his recommendation and headed to Codfather in Camps Bay for dinner for fresh seafood and sushi. Their waitstaff take you to the counter to explain the various fishes. You pick a combination of whatever you’d like. There is also a rotating sushi counter and one can pick any number of sushi rolls and salads. My husband and I ordered a combination of two king clip pieces of fish (the local fish in Cape Town), a piece of tuna, and two langoustines, three pieces of sushi, edamame and a tuna salad all for just $60 US dollars. Now is a great time to travel to South Africa because the exchange rate is in our favor (14 RND = 1 US dollar). The staff at Atlanticview Cape Town Boutique Hotel will prepare your cold and hot breakfast for you to enjoy in your room, giving you the opportunity to sit and relax in your own kitchen equipped with a refrigerator, microwave, and toaster, or on your deck besides your pool overlooking the ocean. Each evening, Atlanticview Cape Town Boutique Hotel offers complimentary snacks and appetizers and drinks in their quaint bar filled with couches and tables. The owners and staff care very much about your experience both at the hotel and in Cape Town, and will work hard to make sure it is the best one possible.  

After three and a half wonderful days in Cape Town, we headed for the Seychelles on South African Airways from Cape Town to Johannesburg and Air Seychelles from Johannesburg to Mahe Island. You can read about the Seychelles part of our trip in the next post.

How to eat tapas in Spain like a local

Ever wonder the history and origin of Tapas? At some point in your life, you’ve probably enjoyed a variety of cold and hot small plates instead of one big meal. In bars in Spain, Tapas is a culture onto itself. It is a night out with friends hopping from bar to bar throughout the night. Locals also grab tapas around noon before their actual lunch later in the day. They are meant to be eaten in between the main meals, usually with a drink in a social setting. There are no tapas restaurants, just tapas bars.

IMG_1637

Porras and Chocolate Photo: Michelle Jerson

Taberna Real Photo: Michelle Jerson

The word “tapas” is derived form the Spanish verb tapar, which means to cover, or to top. Its origin has been linked to many different legends. One states that in a bar, a piece of meat such as ham, or bread was given out and it was to be placed on top of the drink to protect it from fruit flies. Another tale says that since people would mostly stand while they ate in the Spanish bar, they would need to place their plates on top of their drinks in order to eat.   A third claims that when King Alfonso X was sick, he had wine and small dishes throughout the day, and believed that’s what healed him. When he got better, the king mandated all wine be served with a small snack. A fourth possibility involves Felipe III who tried to keep the soldiers and sailors in line. He passed a law that when one purchased a drink, the bartender was to place a lid containing food on top of the mug or goblet so the alcohol would not absorb so quickly. However, no matter the origin, I had a blast eating my way through Madrid just like a local!

Photo: Michelle Jerson

Mercado de Antón Martín

Since there are countless restaurants and bars around the Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor area, I went with a company that specializes just in tapas tours! With so many options, I wanted to make sure I was trying the best! I took Devour Madrid’s Nighttime Tapas, Taverns, and History Tour and also their morning Huertas Neighborhood Food and Market Tour. So how do you know a good tapas bar? Lauren Aloise is the co-founder of Devour Madrid and says, “Most people would consider the dirty floor of a restaurant a bad thing, but not in Spain. A floor filled with crumpled up napkins, shrimp shells and olive pits is a good thing in Spain, meaning that the bar is a popular place. Stories say that one hundred years ago some not-so-honest restaurants would steal the trash from other bars’ floors, to make it look like they were popular too!” When choosing the bars for her tour, she takes into consideration the quality of the food and highlights small and medium family run businesses that have an interesting history and story to tell.

La Casa del Abuelo’s famous shrimp Photo: Michelle Jerson

We started the morning tour with homemade porras and chocolate, a breakfast staple. The porra is a fried pastry, like a churro, just thicker. It is then dipped in a rich cup of chocolate. There’s nothing like a good sugar spike to start your day!  Other traditional tapas include Iberian Ham and other cured meats. Seafood is a staple, including anchovies, sardines, octopus, cod, and shrimp, all prepared many different ways, usually either on a piece of toasted bread or in garlic, parsley and olive oil. It’s not uncommon to see a plate of octopus sprinkled with paprika and drizzled in olive oil.

On the evening tour, we first stopped in at Taberna Real in Plaza de Isabel for some toasted bread with fresh tomato and extra virgin olive oil and a glass of Vermouth on tap. The freshly fried garlic and chili shrimp is a staple at La Casa del Abuelo, which has been around for over 100 years, and not to be missed.   At Bodegas Ricla, Ana lives upstairs and cooks all the tapas in her kitchen. The freshly pickled anchovies in garlic and parsley and her “off-menu” are must haves in this tavern that’s been in existence since 1867.

A variety of seafood tapas Photo: Michelle Jerson

 

With so many bars and food from which to choose in a night, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the options. James Blick, the other co-founder of Devour Madrid offers the following advice on how to get the most out of your tapas experience. “The bar is the beating heart of a tapas joint. It’s where the action is. So forget sitting at a table, and thrust your way to the bar. Don’t order a million plates at once. Order bit by bit. There’s no rush when you’re out for tapas!”

Top picks for Tapas:

Bodegas Ricla:

This bar first opened as a bodega (wine shop, selling wine from the barrel) in 1867. Back then people didn’t buy bottles of wine, but would take their container to fill it up from the barrels in bodegas, and while there, they might grab a snack of boquerones en vinagre (anchovies marinated in vinegar) or some cheese. Thirty years ago the current family took over the tavern, and now the mother Ana does all the cooking (much of the prep done in her kitchen in her apartment upstairs) and her two sons, Emilio and José Antonio, run the bar. They still specialize in wines (though no longer sell from the barrel) and the food is still very simple, reflecting the fact that the bar doesn’t have a full kitchen (as it was originally a shop). The menu consists of Madrid’s most famous boquerones en vinagre, cheeses, salt-cod and one or two hot dishes.

Calle de los Cuchilleros 6 Madrid

Casa Toni:

Lamb Intestines Photo: Michelle Jerson

If you’re the more adventurous type, Casa Toni serves tapas made of body parts that are probably not on your everyday diet. In addition to some staples like the their mini green peppers and eggplant, you’ll find organ meats such as grilled kidneys, fried glands, and braided lamb intestines. Don’t worry – they offer plenty of wine and sangria to wash it all down!

‪Calle de la Cruz 14, 28012

 La Casa del Abuelo:

This family-run bar was founded by the current owners’ great-grandfather in 1906, and was known for its sandwiches (bocadillos). But then came the Spanish Civil War from 1936-1939 and the conflict left Madrid devastated. In the early 1940s there was widespread hunger in the city, and a shortage of bread. This made it impossible for La Casa del Abuelo to continue selling sandwiches. So the current owners’ grandfather went to the market and bought shrimp, which were cheap. And the bar began selling grilled shrimp. These days it’s the most famous place in the city (and perhaps Spain) for gambas (shrimp) on the grill, as well as gambas al ajillo.

http://lacasadelabuelo.es

Calle de la Victoria, 12 and Calle de Toledo, 11

Alevin Fish Noodles Photo: Jordy Greenstein

Mercado de San Miguel: 

This is a great spot to sample a variety of unique and traditional tapas. The market stresses fresh and season dishes. There is a variety of food for all palates. The fish noodle known as the elver, which can be served plain, with shrimp, or in a sandwich with smoked salmon, is a must try. Centrally located in the Plaza de San Miguel and the last remaining iron market hall in Madrid, it’s a fun spot to spend an hour or two.

http://www.mercadodesanmiguel.es/en/the-market/

Plaza de San Miguel, s/n, 28005

Mercado de Antón Martín:

This two level market is stocked with organic food stalls, wine bars and Iberian ham and cheese shops.   There is an area dedicated to cooking demonstrations and small art exhibits and a shop that only sells craft beers. The market reflects an indie vibe, which is a reflection of its neighborhood. The area borders Madrid’s immigrant barrio and has a distinctly bohemian personality.   http://www.mercadoantonmartin.com

Calle de Santa Isabel, 5, 28012

Mesón del Champiñón: A fun atmosphere with a lively piano player, their menu consists of their famous mushrooms and regular tapas. The mushrooms are addictive, filled with olive oil, garlic, parsley and chorizo. The décor is also reflective of the fun environment.

http://www.mesondelchampinon.com

C/ Cava de San Miguel, 17, 28005

Places to stay while exploring Madrid:

Hotel Urso Photo: Jordy Greenstein

Hotel Urso
Photo: Jordy Greenstein

Hotel Urso: This beautiful hotel was taken over and transformed into the progressive property it is today.  The 20th-century palace is close to the Prado Museum and a three minute walk from the Tribunal metro stop.  The pop up restaurant, “The Table By…,” within the hotel was my favorite.  Every few weeks, the restaurant is completely transformed into a new space with a chefs from various regions in Spain.  The Majorcan tasting menu we had was magnificent and the decor a true reflection of the region.

The Table By.. Photo: Jordy Greenstein

The Table By..
Photo: Jordy Greenstein

Room Mate Oscar: “Do you want to sleep with me?” That is the first sign you see as you approach this hotel, which is part of a cluster of other Room Mate hotels in Madrid.  Each one has its own character and Room Mate Oscar is a very reasonably priced boutique hotel in a great location just a minute from the Gran Via.  Its chic rooftop bar is popular with hotel guests and locals.  The staff is extremely friendly and helpful.

Also see: http://www.foxnews.com/leisure/2016/01/11/how-to-eat-tapas-in-spain-like-local/ 

 

 

Mohonk Mountain House: Something for all your Senses

MM5The Mohonk Mountain House, located in the Hudson Valley, just 90 miles from Manhattan, is an amazing place to call home for a few days. The resort is a member of the Historic Hotels of America. It was founded by Albert Smiley is 1869 and over 145 years later, the Victorian castle is still a site to see and experience. The magical Mohonk Mountain House offers unspoiled beautiful scenery, cuisine made using local ingredients, a serene spa and wonderful hospitality. Nestled among 85 miles of hiking trails of the Mohonk Preserve, its backyard is the spectacular Catskill Mountains. I had heard the property was something to see, but nothing prepared me for the thousands of acres of incredible fall foliage that was displayed in red, orange, yellow and green rows of trees  With so many possible paths to explore, each turn offers an even more spectacular view than the last.  mm6

The Mohonk Mountain House has something for everyone. It’s an incredibly romantic resort, as you can find so many secret nooks with benches within the hiking paths where you can sit and take in the views. The rooms are spacious with their own private fireplaces. There’s nothing like cuddling up with your loved one by the fire with a good glass of wine. The spa offers an array of massages, facial and body treatments for individuals and couples. Each locker room also has a sauna and steam room and there is a co-ed heated mineral pool outside. A solarium also offers a peaceful space with lounge chairs in which the two of you can just relax and stare at the gorgeous outdoors. Looking to unwind even more? They offer an array of meditation classes and private meditation instruction.

MM3 Mohonk is also great for families. There were many children enjoying the fun Halloween theme, haunted house and Halloween Ball. However, with the property and dining areas being so spacious, it did not affect the quaint romantic vibe. There is a ton of activities no matter the season. The property transforms with the season.

While it will be tough to choose what to do in a day with so many options, one thing you’ll be doing a lot of is eating! For breakfast, you’ll enjoy a large breakfast buffet with an omelet and waffle station. If you’re there on a Sunday, you’ll have the breakfast buffet and also a huge brunch buffet which includes a cheese spread, lox, shrimp cocktail, an array of hot and cold dishes, salads and omelet and carving stations. Lunch is also a buffet consisting of salads international hot and cold dishes and carving stations along with an extensive dessert spread. MM4 For dinner, you can choose the casual buffet option or dress to impress for a formal sit-down dinner with a quality three-course meal with an extensive wine list. They also offer alternative vegetarian, vegan and gluten free options. MM2 The award-winning chefs definitely go out of their way to make sure your dinner is prepared with your specific dietary needs and requests in mind.

 

So if you’re looking for a gorgeous retreat, romantic getaway or a fun family weekend, you can get more information at www.mohonk.com. Keep your eyes out for special themes and activities for the holidays

Escape to the Beautiful North Fork, Long Island

 I grew up on Long Island. Yet, surprisingly enough, I had never been out east to the North Fork, known most predominately for its numerous vineyards, large and small. Upon arrival, I couldn’t believe I had never seen this part of the island sooner! It is the perfect place to celebrate a bachelor or bachelorette party, have a wedding, or a romantic weekend getaway with your significant other. There are many options for exploring, including hiring a car service, driving yourself (which I wouldn’t recommend) or biking to the vineyards, since they are so close to one another. However, I wanted something romantic, yet also fun and unique.  winewagonmike

For the romantic part, I stayed at the beautiful Wells House Bed and Breakfast, and for fun, we hired Michael Roche and his Wine Wagon. With room for 15,  we all helped pedal our way to the vineyards while he steered, rocking out to our favorite tunes. He can hook up our own phone’s music or use his own and take requests!  Since there were just two of us, we joined a larger group, which was a great way to make friends along the way!  He will give you a central meeting point in Peconic and then take you to a few wineries and the Greenport Harbor Brewery Company. If you have certain wineries in mind,  the tour can be customized to your preferences. He can be hired for either three or five hours. This is definitely an extremely fun and unique way to see some of the most beautiful wineries.  wellsvince

Most of the wineries are in Peconic. However, only a few minutes away is the lovely town of Greenport. Greenport has a quaint downtown area with great clothing and antique shops, the obligatory ice cream establishments, and some terrific restaurants. Within walking distance to all of this is the stunningly historic Wells House Bed and Breakfast. Vince Albert, a pioneer in the International Logistics and Sourcing industry for 30 years, is the owner, and will make you feel at home immediately! He is incredibly friendly, full of knowledge about the area and will recommend things to do and restaurants to check out during your visit.   Did I mention he also makes an incredibly delicious breakfast?  He will proudly show you around the beautifully restored European style home and unlock doors to historical treasures.

The home was commissioned by Captain Wells, a married father of eight, and successful whaling captain before the Civil War. The following owner, David C. Petty, owned a popular bottling company whose bottles were handmade of blown-glass. Two examples are on display at the bottling museum in the Midwest, and the other at the Wells House. beachThis is just one of the many antiques collected over the past thirty years, with over 80% of them at least 100 years old. You can get lost in the stories that fill each room.  While there is plenty to do in addition to your vineyard tour, like stroll through Greenport, along the beach, or take ferry and bike ride to Shelter Island, make sure you leave enough time to enjoy the tranquility of the Wells House.

So whether it’s your first time to the North Fork or you’ve been before, there is always a new winery to explore, beach to uncover, or romantic bed and breakfast to enjoy. You can read more about the Wells House here: thewellshousebnb.com and Michael’s wine wagon here: northforkwinewagon.com.  

Fall in Love with Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way

IMG_8640_2There are many regions one can visit on a trip to Ireland and each has its own unique flavor, whether a big city or small coastal town along the Wild Atlantic Way.   While many will fly into Dublin, we flew into Shannon, just an easy 5.5 hour flight from JFK on Aer Lingus. We began our journey on the gorgeous Wild Atlantic Way, a fairly recent term given to the Southwest coastal region of Ireland, which consists of the dazzling coastline, quaint towns and villages with locally owned shops and pubs, small hotels, and cozy Bed and Breakfasts for all budgets. IMG_8129

In just 90 minutes we were in the middle of the gorgeous Killarney National Park at the Aghadoe Heights Hotel and Spa. One glance outside the window and I knew we were going to have an amazing couple of days in Killarney, The Ring of Kerry, and Dingle.   While we only had two days in the area, if you can afford more, I would take your time to explore this gorgeous region. If you are on a time constraint, or even if you’re not, I highly recommend calling Con Moriority of Hidden Ireland Tours, as he will zip you around the area from morning until sunset showing you places you probably wouldn’t have known existed if trying to explore on your own. IMG_8157  In addition, if you are not used to driving on the other side of really narrow roads that only fit one car at a time, you will definitely want to save yourself time and stress by hiring a guide and driver to do that work for you. Another benefit of hiring a private guide is that you don’t have to get caught up in the traffic of tour buses, as the buses are only allowed to drive in one direction around the peninsula, but if you’re in a car, you can move along a lot faster, which means you can experience a lot more. P1090983  Con was chock full of information that one could never find online. His enthusiasm for the region where he and his family grew up is contagious and inspiring.

Aghadoe Heights Hotel and Spa is a beautiful five star property with scenic beauty from every vantage point in the hotel, including the relaxation area of the spa, the fitness center, pool and dining room. It is in the middle of Killarney National Park, one of the most iconic and spectacular pieces of land in Ireland, and in close proximity to such attractions as the Mucross House and Gardens, Tarc Waterfall and Ross Castle. It is also an ideal spot for a destination wedding. Their penthouse suite is more than just a room. It includes your own private kitchen, self -service bar, office center and private wrap around patio. P1100001

The entire coastline of the Ring of Kerry and Dingle Peninsula afford amazing views of lakes, mountains and sunsets. Killarney and Dingle are great little towns, but unfortunately we were in Dingle on Sunday when most of the shops are closed. On other days you can check out the shop and workshop of jeweler, Brian de Staic, where you can get your name written in Ogham, the language from 2000 years ago still used today. Siopa Ceoil music store is a great stop for both intimate music shows and unique instruments and history.  P1100018

The peninsula is forty miles long and five miles wide and is home to over 3,500 archeological sites, including the standing stone from the bronze age in 1000 BC.   Slea Head Drive is on the western most part of the peninsula and is home to Coumeenole Beach made famous in the movie “Ryan’s Daughter” with Robert Malcolm and Sarah Miles.

You can begin your drive on the Ring of Kerry from the Killarney National Park.IMG_8232 The Ring of Kerry is a 110 mile touring route separated by the Atlantic Bay and Kenmare. Around the ring, you can drive through the Black Valley and over the gap of Dunloe, one of the most dramatic mountain passes in Ireland. It divides the mountains of Killarney National Park and Purple Moutain in the east and McGillycuddy’s Reeks in the west. The Skellig Mountains can be seen from the coastline, or if you have additional time, they are accessible by boat. The 800 steps to the top were cut out by monks 1500 years ago. In the evening, be sure to hike over Bolus Head for the most amazing sunset you will see in Ireland.  IMG_8514

After spending two full days along the Ring of Kerry and Dingle, I didn’t think it would be possible to see anything more beautiful. But I was in for a surprise as we made our way to County Clare and the Cliffs of Moher. I had read about them when I used to report for Travelzoo.com, but even the best of descriptions on paper can’t do them justice. They are the most visited natural attraction in Ireland with over a million visitors a year. At the highest point, they reach 702 feet high and five feet out over the Atlantic. We met Pet Sweeney, who was one of the key farmers, whose family has lived on the land for five generations, and was instrumental in donating some of his land to help build the cliff walk that now allows tourists to walk on the Cliffs, as opposed to just driving on a tour bus or taking a cruise beneath them. IMG_8372  He led us on a three hour walking tour back into Doolin and we were richly rewarded with lots of water (and guinness!) and a delicious lunch at Gus O’Connor’s Pub.   Doolin is a great spot to visit, as it is centrally located to so much, yet has that small town feeling. The Seaview House Bed and Breakfast sits on a cliff and offers spectacular views of the Cliffs of Moher while the Doolin Hotel is a standard hotel, but small enough so it still feels cozy. From here, you can visit Doolin Cave, which is home to the largest 24 foot free hanging-stalactite and the Burren Smokehouse, and see for yourself where the very popular smoked fish originates. In New York, you can find it sold in Dean and Deluca. IMG_8376 Just about a ten minute drive from Doolin is the little town of Lisdoonvarna, but this little town turns into the hub for the largest matchmaking festival in all of Europe in the fall. But what if you’re single and can’t make it to the matchmaking festival? There’s a good chance you’ll still have the opportunity to meet with the only traditional matchmaker left in Ireland, Willy Daly at his bar called Dalys in Ennistimon. Even if you’re not looking to be matched, he is quite a character and you can bet you’ll be serenaded by him and his friends if you pay him a visit.

IMG_8614_2From Doolin, take a ferry to the Aran Islands in Galway Bay. We took the one hour and forty five minute ride to the largest of the islands, Inishmor, which is home to Dun Aengus Fort, perched on the edge of a 300 foot cliff. Once on the island, you can get around by horse and carriage (jaunting cars as they call them), a guided van ride, or by bicycle. If you’d like to see most of the island in a few hours time, you may want to go for the van. Otherwise a leisurely bike ride is a great way to spend the day.

Named one of the best places to holiday in Ireland by the Irish Times in 2013 and the winner of sustainable travel awards, The Loop Head Peninsula is a great spot for those who love watersports. It is on the west coast of County Clare and in the center of the Wild Atlantic Way. Amazing views can be seen from the lighthouse in Kilbaha. After you have taken the tour of the lighthouse, head into the quaint town for a cup of tea and some local souvenirs handmade by artists in the area, with a visit to Kilbaha Gallery and Crafts.  IMG_8637_2From there, take a car ferry into Limerick. In Limerick, you must pay a visit to the traditional milk market, which has been in existence for over 100 years. There you will find people selling everything from traditional Irish food, produce, and jams to creative vegan treats, as well as local products such as jewelry and clothing. It is a fun atmosphere and you’ll want to arrive hungry! The Limerick Craft Hub is another great spot a mix of for local artistry, showcasing over 40 different artist under one roof. IMG_8685  Those who visit also have an opportunity to learn from craftsman on site. Kate Ramsey makes beautiful scarfs and it’s very interesting to see what goes into making her  beautiful felt and silk creations. I made a shamrock charm with the silversmith while sipping tea and enjoying local snacks.   They sell everything from handmade dog lip balm to gorgeous ceramics.

Of course no trip to Ireland is complete without a visit to Dublin for at least a day. IMG_8265However, I recommend two…one for sightseeing and one for shopping and just taking some time to relax in one of the beautiful green spaces such as St. Stephen’s Green, Merrion Square or the courtyard of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.   At night, duck into one of the many pubs and listen to some good Irish music. While the Temple Bar area is well known, you may not hear just Irish music and the bars tend to get really crowded, or at least they were when I was there on a Saturday night. On Sundays, the shops don’t open until 11 or noon, but there is a certain peacefulness and charming feel of walking the city before the streets get packed. IMG_8296  We stayed at the Morrison Hotel, which is centrally located on the north side of the city and right over the bridge from the south side where you’ll find many of the great sites, parks and pubs. It is part of Hilton’s Doubletree brand and a comfortable, hip place to stay. If you’d like to stay on the outskirts of city center, Clontarf Castle is an option and there is a bus five minutes from the hotel that will take you into the city every ten minutes in just about twenty minutes. IMG_8776  If you just have a day or two in Dublin, I would recommend staying in the city, as it’s much easier to get around and go back and forth if you want to take a break.

As you’ll see after making your own trip to Ireland, the country and particularly the Wild Atlantic Way is filled with spectacular beauty and people rich in character. Whether you’re single, dating or have been in love for many years, I challenge you not to fall in love all over again upon laying your eyes on Ireland.