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.

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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.

 

History and Distillaries in Louisville and Lynchburg!

IMG_7661I’ve always loved Nashville and have been three times before, so when friends said they were headed for a long weekend, I jumped on board. In the past, I’ve done the staples like the Country Music Hall of Fame, Ryman Auditorium, Studio A, the downtown honky tonks, Jacks BBQ, the Gaylord Opryland and the Grand Ole Opry.  You can read more about those places here: (http://passportmommy.com/?s=nashville), so this time I was excited we were going to visit the quaint town of Lynchburg, Tennessee, also home to the Jack Daniels Distillery and Miss Mary Bobos, the old boarding home turned quaint restaurant in a beautiful Southern home.   We still went to the Grand Ole Opry Saturday night, because a visit to Nashville is not complete without the legendary show that is also broadcast on WSN radio and on SiriusXM radio.   The performers are always top notch and the sponsored live commercials in between acts are equally entertaining. IMG_7701

The Jack Daniel’s distillery provided a very informative tour, and even for someone who is not a big whisky drinker, I learned a lot about Mr. Daniels and have a new appreciation for the work that goes into making one of the most popular whiskey brands in the world. They offer a free tour throughout the distillery, or for $10, you can include a tasting at the end of the tour.   Afterwards, you can explore the town of Lynchburg, a short walk across a small bridge. There you’ll find the hardware store, full of Jack Daniel’s souvenirs, plenty of fudge and chocolate shops, and a few BBQ restaurants. IMG_7708We made reservations at Miss Mary Bobos, (fill in info here).   If you’d like to experience some good traditional homemade cooking served family style with warm Southern hospitality, this is the place to go. Each room in the home has a table with a host who has been a staple there for many years. Mrs. Nutt told us stories of her 40 years of teaching in the area, and after we finished eating meal of fried chicken, meatloaf, baked apples, fried okra, casserole, and beans with relish, she told us it was made with lots of butter and lard, so just a heads up!  IMG_7518

The next morning, we began our 2.5-hour drive to Kentucky with a few stops along the way, including Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace and the Makers Mark Distillery, part of the Bourbon Trail. We had a few other distilleries on the agenda as well, but we had a lot to do in a short amount of time, including a visit to the Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Museum. The Makers Mark Distillery was equally as fun as the Jack Daniel’s tour. It was a bit shorter, but still incorporated a tasting for just $9 a ticket.  IMG_7741  There are many distilleries along the famed “Bourbon Trail,” but as a magnet said in one of the gift stores, “So many bourbons, so little time.” Since we forgot to factor in the one hour time change from Nashville to Louisville, we did lose and hour and therefore made our way directly to the Kentucky Derby Museum, where we were treated to a mini tour of Churchill Downs. There are various tours that allow you to see the grounds of the Thoroughbred racetrack. IMG_7781

A tour you won’t want to miss while in Louisville is David Domine’s “America’s Most Haunted Neighborhood Tour” of Old Louisville. He also leads a Exuberant Neighborhood Tour” which also covers Old Louisville, but dives deeper into the architecture and history of the beautiful neighborhood. Through his extensive talks with people and research into the paranormal, specifically those apparitions in Old Louisville, he weaves together the history of the home with the ghosts that have been spotted in the various sections of the house. One home known as the Robinson House or the Murder House, in particular has been featured in many of the crime shows. IMG_7576  He is also in the middle of researching and writing another book about the subject. He has written multiple books on the many facets of Old Louisville and they can be found by searching his name online. IMG_7578

Other things to do while in Louisville includes a visit to the Louisville Slugger Museum and a tour of the factory.   I think I was the only one without children on the tour, but I loved it! You’ll see everything from how a bat is sized exactly to match all of the others, to how they burn the branding into the wood.   The Cave Hill Cemetery is home to many of the confederate and US Soldiers who fought in the Civil War, as well as to Coronel Harland Sanders, founder of the KFC Empire.   The cemetery itself is a beautiful arboretum and can be seen with an organized tour on certain days or a self-guided tour is made easy with the map you can pick up at the visitor’s center.

IMG_7874For food and entertainment, the Fourth Street Live District is great for sports bars and healthy fast food, while NuLu (New Louisville) has some nicer sit down restaurants alongside antique and independent shops and galleries. We had dinner at “Ramsi’s Café on the World,” which served deliciously healthy food from all around the world with a heavy influence from the executive chef’s Israeli background. Louisville_026

Museum row is a great area to check out as well. Our hotel, Museum 21C, is a staple on the block, and a must visit, whether or not you stay overnight. The museum part of the hotel is open 24/7 and invites locals and visitors to events, or to just explore the many unique art installations organically weaved throughout the hotel. Guests can enjoy the 24/7 co-ed spa area that features a modern fitness center, steam room, sauna, and showers with top of the line products. AlterEgo_21c_0070 The rooms are also modern and very comfortable. IMG_7823 It is in a great location, right in the middle of the city, just a block away from both the Louisville Slugger Museum and the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, which also offers tours.  If you’re short on time, a visit to their gift shop is a good way to get a sample of some of their products. It’s three blocks from the Fourth Street Live District, and also a quick ten minutes to the cemetery and fifteen minutes to the airport.

If it’s a beautiful day out, go for a long walk across the Second Street Bridge, which is also just a few blocks from the Museum 21C Hotel. The bridge itself is lengthy, so be prepared! However, on the other side awaits the gorgeous Falls of the Ohio River. It is at these falls that you can walk out to the falls and spot fossils if the water is low enough.   You can also say you walked to Indiana!

So while many may not have Louisville and Lynchburg on the top of their destination lists, both offer quite a bit of history and fun with all of the famous factories, museums, whiskey and bourbon distilleries that are housed there. They are quick getaways from the tri-state area and definitely worth checking out on a long weekend with friends or a family vacation.

 

 

 

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The Texas Spa Roundup

deerlake1In Houston, the rodeo may have been in town, but after I landed at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, I was on my way to a lodge an hour outside of Houston to begin a very different roundup of health and wellness lodges and resorts for the week. First stop was the Deer Lake Lodge and Spa. The flight to Houston is not expensive on United Airlines, and the lodge offers a car service to pick you up at the airport. Brian from Creekside Limousine picked me up and gave me a great intro tutorial to the lodge on the way.

I originally chose to come here after meeting them at an organic spa event in NYC last year.   I have covered health and wellness facilities like Canyon Ranch (now known as Carillon Hotel and Spa) in Miami and Chiva Som in Thailand, but I’ve never done a true detox.   Based on what I knew about detoxing before arriving, I thought I was in for a few days of vegetable juices and wheatgrass shots throughout the day in combination with some light soups. When I first saw my program, the words shot out of my mouth, “Is this it for everyday?” deerlake2Normally, I eat very healthy at home, so I didn’t think the whole program would be such a shock. However, it was a bit different than expected. Most of the time, I was very full, except for the second night after my soup dinner and yoga. Had I gone to sleep early, I probably wouldn’t have realized just how hungry I was! But other than that, you are drinking vegetable juice once a day and making a detox drink twice a day, which consists of a choice of green powders, a detox powder made up of apple pectin, flax seeds, acacia, and Benonyte Clay, a teaspoon of Clark’s minerals, and coconut oil. Mix that into a paste with some apple juice and add water. Very filling. Plus, in one of the food classes taught by the very informative and bubbly April Ree, you get to sample the amazing raw pudding she showed us how to make in the vitamix.   She is chock full of fun simple recipes you can take home for you and your family. IMG_7491

April, whose website is http://www.oceansofabundance.com, not only teaches some food classes, including the one about how to eat when coming off of a fast, but also will take you food shopping and show you aisle by aisle what you should be buying and items to avoid.   Again, even as someone who knows quite a bit about healthy eating, I still learned a few new tidbits, which were helpful. It also reinforced some of what I may know, but don’t practice.   The lodge offers a variety of packages from which to choose, but you can also purchase additional services, including a full array of traditional spa treatments, as well as colonics, which are administered by a certified hydrotherapist, Paula Hobbart.

There are also lectures and sessions offered by a hypnotherapist, acupuncturist and iridologist, which I had not heard of before. It’s the reading of your eyes.   While some alternative practices may seem “out there,” she said this is based on true science. Cheryl Lemoine Kainer took a picture of my eye and then told me a few things I should know about my body based on the different areas of my eye.

IMG_7493The setting of Deer Lake Lodge and Spa is one of pure serenity. It really is in the middle of nowhere, so there is no temptation to leave and explore the area. In your down time, you can enjoy the infrared sauna, which has many benefits over a standard sauna, or just sit on your screen- enclosed porch and listen to the sounds of nature.   As a girl who lives in NYC, with constant stimulation, it’s forced relaxation that is sometimes needed to truly unwind. It was really nice to alternate my day with classes and treatments and hours that were just mine with nothing I needed to do, but could spend writing or reading.  The rooms are very comfortable with organic linens and Jacuzzi tubs.  It’s simply a great escape for a few days if you need a long serene weekend away or can incorporate it into another trip to the Houston area. Be prepared to slowly go back to your eating regime, as I did experience some stomach pain and adjustment time. You’ll also need to consult your doctor to get clearance for the colonics.

IMG_7554Next stop on the spa roundup was Lake Austin Spa Resort. A complete 180 from the Deer Lake Lodge and Spa, this resort is for those looking for a more active retreat with delicious healthy food and wine and beer selections. This gorgeous resort on the lake is great for girlfriend getaways, romantic retreats and just a relaxing getaway for one, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  In beautiful Texas Hill Country, this resort includes all food, fitness classes and informative classes in your package price. IMG_7556 You can get whatever you’d like from the resort, from relaxing on a hammock by the lake listening to the ducks play, to working out and participating in the group hikes. My days consisted of taking out a kayak and paddling past blue herons, followed by a TRX class, a foam roller class, a NIA dance class, and a high intensity cardio and weight training class in the gym, and a relaxing swim in their pool barn. lakeaustinpool

Enjoy the breakfast buffet, which includes fresh fruit and berries, yogurt, oatmeal and chia, flax and hemp seeds. There is also a menu of hot food from which you can order. Lunch was also a fresh buffet of vegetables picked from their organic garden. Dinner is a large selection of soups, salads, seafood and meat entrees, and vegetarian options. The spa also offers an alternative menu with healthy dishes such as their refreshing watermelon gazpacho soup and yellow fin tuna corn tortillas (I substituted bib lettuce for the tortillas) with vegan aioli sauce and avocado. lakeaustinfood

After a day of fitness classes, treat your muscles to a massage molded to your personal needs. Glen was my therapist, and not only gave me the most amazing neuromuscular type of massage for my persistent rhomboid stiffness, but also showed me some stretches to help target the area.   I opted to have my massage outside so I could listen to the relaxing sounds of the waterfall.

The very comfortable beds and pillows and the serene setting also made for some great sleeping. The stars and moon also shined bright at night. I highly recommend a visit to Lake Austin Spa Resort as a visit on its own or with a few nights to spend in Downtown Austin, as you won’t want to leave the property during your stay.

After an hour and 45 minute drive, the next stops on my spa roundup were in San Antonio.   The Lantana Spa at the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa and the Mokara Hotel and Spa in downtown San Antonio on the River Walk. The two properties are very different, with the huge JW Marriott situated on a PGA golf course with a huge six acre water park, pool, and kids club. The JW Marriott is one of three resorts in the US with two PGA golf courses.   The hotel boasts 1002 rooms and 265,000 square feet of meeting space.   The beauty of this property is that the whole family can visit if someone is there on business.   Mom can enjoy the spa while taking advantage of the kids club, and because the property is so large, even though it can hold thousands of people, it never feels crowded. 18 Oaks, its fine dining steakhouse is a great spot for a romantic or business dinner. There are seven restaurants and bars on property.

The Lantana Spa is a full service spa with a fitness center and exercise classes with a Jacuzzi, steam room, and private outdoor pool. My experience began with a unique seven knots ritual-tying a ribbon with seven knots completing a circle to release your stress and start anew. The 26,000 square foot spa is the largest in Texas. I was treated to their signature massage of the Curanderos. Compresses are filled with a blend of organic herbs that not only relaxes, but works on sore pressure points. It was a massage unlike any I’ve had before. The compresses worked deeper than a hot stone massage, since there is the ability to place it under a certain part of your body and apply pressure.

mokara spaIf you are staying in downtown San Antonio to be in close proximity to the River Walk, Alamo, and the Missions National Park, the Mokara Hotel and Spa is a beautiful property on the River Walk. When I was there, a wedding party from NYC was at the spa prepping for the big day. The high-end spa offers services for  both men and women including everything from an express mani and pedi to hour or longer treatments. I opted for the alpha beta peel facial, which was an amazing in depth 80-minute treatment. It was a chemical facial treatment consisting of alpha and beta hydroxyl acids to minimize the appearance of surface lines, smooth out rough texture, aid in clearing acne and help fade hyperpigmentation. The esthetician was terrific, telling me along the way about all the SkinCeutical products she used throughout. In the women’s locker room was a Jacuzzi, steam room and sauna and relaxation lounge as well.

IMG_7655In keeping with the healthy trend, if you’re looking for a Mexican restaurant that utilizes fresh fruits and vegetables in all its dishes, check out Chef Johnny Hernandez’s The Fruteria, inspired by Mexico’s beautiful and colorful fruit stands. The name means, “green grocer” and the space is modeled after a Mexican Botanero for tapas and cocktails.   During the day, the Fruteria serves smoothies made form fresh fruit along with tostados and tortas, and at night, the bartenders are mixing fresh fruit with regional tequilas.   The restaurant is a short five minute drive from the River Walk and also has other locations throughout Texas.

image_11179Even though I was on a spa tour, I always love incorporating other attractions into my travels if time allows. After I had finished my three and a half days at the Deer Lake Lodge and Spa, Brian took me back into Houston, where I did go to the final day of the Houston rodeo, a huge yearly event drawing hundreds of thousands of people. I stayed at Hotel Sorella CityCentre which was in a great new complex with shops and restaurants and a big green area with live music and a place for kids to play. It’s a great business hotel as well. At the end of my spa tour, I stayed in the Galleria area at the Royal Sonnesta, which was also a great business hotel with a large lobby and bar. It’s an easy thirty minutes to the airport and also close to downtown Houston with plenty of shopping and restaurants in the area.

So the next time you’re looking to give your body a break from the everyday grind, learn a few new health trends, some wonderful spas and detox lodges are waiting for you not too far away in the Lone Star state! As they like to say, everything is bigger and better in Texas!

Winter Blues? Head South for Sun, Sand and Serenity at The Carillon Hotel and Spa (formerly Canyon Ranch Miami Beach)

IMG_7135It was a few days into the New Year, and I had finally escaped the cold city for a few days and hopped on a flight to South Florida. I didn’t know exactly where I was going to go after my trip to the Keys for a few days, but I desperately wanted to relax and rejuvenate somewhere, and when a friend I met in the Keys invited me to come see the Carillon Hotel and Spa, where she lives on the property, I knew immediately I needed to spend a few days.

The Carillon Hotel and Spa, formerly the Canyon Ranch, is located on Collins Avenue and 69th Street, so close enough to the scene of South Beach if that’s of interest, but an oasis onto itself, and in my opinion, you never need to leave the property. Set on the ocean, there are three buildings, the north and south towers, which are residences with their own pools and Jacuzzis, a couple of workout rooms outside with views of the ocean, and the central tower, which houses the hotel, spa, fitness center, health and wellness area, lecture rooms, and an outdoor pool and Jacuzzi overlooking the vast ocean. IMG_7117

I met one couple who goes once a year for their annual doctor’s visit with Dr. Koffler, the medical director at Carillon Hotel & Spa. They followed her from her practice in Chicago. An integrative medicine physician, she works with clients on a number of issues, ranging from weight loss and food allergies to getting to the bottom of whatever ails you. At Carillon Hotel & Spa, you can get advanced, on-site diagnostic testing, and the personalized care to figure out what may be the underlying causes of what is going on in your body, in a non-rushed environment, which we so often encounter at our own doctor’s office.

IMG_7100With tons of options, you can make your visit work for you and your specific needs. Many go with specific goals in mind, whether it be physical, mental or spiritual, and some just go to relax and enjoy the incredible spa facilities and participate in the wide variety of workout classes. Aside from setting up your own personal appointments with doctors, spiritual leaders, and therapists, there is a full daily schedule of fitness classes and free informational lectures covering a wide variety of physical and spiritual health and wellness topics. For the typical person from New York or New Jersey, it’s easy to get wrapped up in feeling as though you need to do everything. This time around, I did not schedule any one-on-ones, so I used my time to take full advantage of the classes, lectures, spa facilities and a deep tissue treatment, and left time to just lounge on a chair right on top of the ocean listening to the sounds of the waves crash against the shore as I closed my eyes and dozed off into a deep state of relaxation.

Since I wanted to make sure I got a taste of everything, I did the fitness classes I don’t usually do at home, like the TRX circuit class, which is held outside overlooking the ocean, and the gyrokinesis class that did a phenomenal job of releasing neck and back tension. The classes in the pool overlooking the ocean, such as tabata, were also quite invigorating and made for great workouts. I even got on the rock climbing wall as part of a rock climbing boot camp class. My muscles definitely got a workout, but when they were telling me how sore they were, I knew I could just hop in one of many hot Jacuzzis, or the Aquavana thermal suite, comprised of several hot and cold therapies to get your muscles to relax and detox. I have been in many steam rooms and saunas over time, but none have smelled as wonderful or relaxed me more than those at the ranch. IMG_7077 Just one foot into the Aquavana area and I’m certain my blood pressure went down. I let myself enjoy an hour alternating between the Finnish sauna, the igloo, which sprays three different aromas into the air, the crystal steam room, the showers which have three different storm settings to ignite the senses, the hydrospa and footspa, and the herbal laconium, which provides gentle humidity infused with fresh herbs. The heated chairs cradle your back and neck perfectly for complete relaxation. Downstairs is the treatment area, where Richard Herrara worked his magic with my deep tissue massage and bath. The 80 or 110 minute treatment starts with a therapeutic bath infused with Dead Sea salts and mustard products that massages every part of your body, followed by a deep tissue massage. Richard is an incredible therapist who knew the perfect amount of pressure to yield results, while still ensuring a relaxing treatment.

IMG_7097The food at Carillon Hotel & Spa is not only healthy, with all of the calories and fat, carb, protein, fiber and sodium content written on the menu, it is phenomenally delicious. For breakfast one day I ordered the tofu scramble, which was prepared with just the right flavor of spices, a side of delicious smoked salmon and fresh berries with a greens juice on the side. Second day was their Mediterranean breakfast, which was just as amazing. The warm artichoke salad with a side of wild salmon was the perfect lunch to enjoy on the beach. While relaxing by the ocean or pools, there is cabana service, serving food and drinks.

We are very lucky in the northeast to have such an amazing facility so close to home. For the perfect combination of sun, ocean, fitness, wellness, healthy and delicious cuisine, insight and relaxation, look no further than Carillon Hotel & Spa in Miami Beach. It’s exactly what the doctor ordered to help with the winter or anytime blues.

http://www.carillonhotel.com

Does “Nice” Mean Boring?

 

http://www.jdate.com/jmag/2014/09/my-date-is-really-nice-but/#respond

 

Chill Out at Chiva Som : Thailand’s Top Health Retreat

IMG_1215Wheatgrass and green juices with breakfast on the ocean,  hundreds of skin, body and mind treatments, fitness training and group classes, tai chi and yoga, and the most delicious buffets and sit down meals; all made with no processed ingredients.… for what else could one possibly ask? To me it was heaven on earth. My sanctuary for what was too short of a time…this sanctuary is Chiva Som in Hua Hin, Thailand. I paid a visit to the health and wellness resort after my ten days of travel throughout Thailand. I signed up for the three day program, the taste of Chiva Som. IMG_1238 However, after my first incredible dinner there, I knew three days was definitely not going to be enough time to truly immerse myself and relax. However, I think I did a pretty good job in the few days I had. I met people from all over the world, and not one of them said it was their first time to Chiva Som. People had been back there numerous times and were staying for at least five days, but most planned to stay two weeks to a month! There were people there of all ages and visiting with various goals in mind. IMG_1234 Some were there to take advantage of the detoxing program, while others were healing from an injury, and some to regroup after emotional trauma, or to become more focused in their daily life. Whatever the goal, Chiva Som provides the perfect peaceful setting and magnificent doctors, therapist, visiting consultants, and skin care professionals to address your concerns and put together the best plan of action for you. When I arrived, I met with the consultant who looked at the form I filled out to determine what concerns or issues I had, and talk to me about my goals while there. That night was BBQ night, and it was a far cry from your typical American BBQ! IMG_1228They had a huge spread of various salads, fresh sashimi, huge prawns, lobster tails and scallops, and healthy meat dishes prepared with seasonings that aid in digestion. The fruit selection for all three meals included succulent papaya, pineapple, passion fruit, dragon fruit, watermelon and pomelo; local and from their organic farm. A typical breakfast includes the buffet with the fresh fruit, homemade and greek yogurts, cured salmon, raw breads (made with nuts and seeds only), a selection of fresh vegetable and fruit juices, and then the option to order something from the menu, which included a wide variety of eggs, buckwheat pancakes, and sides like seaweed salad and pickled vegetables. The first night, I felt guilty going back up for thirds and fourths, considering I was at a health resort, but the food was so good, and as one guy said, everything is so healthy and you’re doing so much activity, that you’re still going to lose weight. Every dish on the menu and the buffet has the calorie count, so you can monitor how many calories you’re consuming. Many who go to Chiva Som decide to do their detox program, which can be done with a minimum of three days. On the detox program, you will be given fresh vegetable and fruit juices throughout the day, along with soups, or light meals, depending on the day. There is a separate menu for those choosing to give the liver a rest. If you are considering a detox, Chiva Som is the perfect setting for it because you can relax as much as you’d like, and there are doctors and nurses to speak with if you experience any side effects. Lobster-SteamedH If you’re not used to eating a certain way, you may get a headache the first day, but that’s your body telling you it’s getting rid of the toxins. Lunch was also the buffet plus menu, and for dinner, you could choose to eat at the Thai restaurant right on the beach, or the Emerald Room, which had a huge selection of healthy, whole food appetizers, entrees, and deserts from which to choose. For seating, many choose to sit alone and enjoy the serenity of the resort, but if you’d like to meet other people and share experiences, there is a talk table as well. Therefore, whether you come alone or with others, you’ll have whatever experience you’re seeking. While I was by myself, I enjoyed eating dinner staring out at the ocean. I also enjoyed how friendly everyone else was, and how easy it was to meet people who had come from places like Singapore, India, Katar, Switzerland, Denmark, and New Zealand. One night at dinner, the five of us were all from different countries. That is something you probably won’t find at a health resort in the United States. Another benefit to going to Thailand for this amazing retreat is the alternative approach to healing and the eastern style treatments. IMG_1217 One day I had a consultation with the naturopathic doctor and we discussed a lot in an hour – time you don’t normally get with your own doctor. He then made recommendations for things to do and try when back home. If you plan on staying longer, Chiva Som also offers blood testing and intolerance testings. The treatment selection and practitioners are outstanding. I was mad at myself for falling asleep through some of them, but when I asked the therapist to wake me up if I did, they told me it’s best to fall asleep during a treatment, because it means you are in a deep relaxation, and that is when the body can accept the most healing from their work. CS032H The therapists are incredible, so it was tough not to fall into a deep relaxing state. I had an acupressure facial treatment, in which they use a tool to press the points in your face that correspond to other parts of your body, craniosacral work, an invigorating massage in which they massage and chop your body, and an herbal signature massage, using warm packs. I also met with the physical therapist and she did a comprehensive analysis of my back and then I worked on their neural equipment (neuromuscular activation) with a therapist.  It’s a great way to learn how to fire up those unused muscles. They also offer some great hydrotherapy treatments; my favorite including one in which you are gently swept through the water while just relaxing and letting your mind go. CS200808-94H They say some equate it to being back in the womb. I did find myself having flashbacks, but not as far back as the womb! Chiva Som is really a magnificent health resort. No matter your shape, level of activity, or health condition, they will make sure you leave there feeling incredibly better than when you went in. If possible, I would spend at least five days on property, but some time is better than no time. Going there has inspired me to slow down, stick to my clean diet, and even add in a few spices to my cooking. You can read all about the various packages and more about Chiva Som here: http://www.chivasom.com

Thailand: Affordable Cuisine, Culture, Markets and Massages!

Bangkok

Bangkok

From Bangkok’s bustling city life to Chiang Mai’s temples and elephant farms, and Phuket’s paradise beaches and resorts, Thailand has something for everyone. As I write this, I am on my way to Chiva Som, Thailand’s premiere health and wellness resort in Hua Hin, about three hours from Bangkok International airport.  I am excited to go, but also sad, as I leave my friends behind after what was just an amazing ten day journey, exploring the culture, people, and cuisine of Thailand.   I was traveling with seven other writers and photographers from New York and Canada, and while none of us knew each other before the trip, the magical experience bonded us.

Grand Palace, Bangkok

Grand Palace, Bangkok

Before arriving to Thailand, I knew from people who had traveled previously that I could get a massage; maybe two a day, at prices under $10 for an hour.  So that was my only goal before arriving – get as many massages as possible.  Other than that, I had no expectations, and my eyes were wide open, ready for an adventure.  I flew Virgin America from NY to LA and then Thai Airways from LA to Seoul and Seoul to Bangkok.  It was my first time flying Virgin America, and I thoroughly enjoyed the comfortable flight and easy to use wifi on board.  The flight from LAX to Seoul was 12 hours and then another 5 from Seoul to Bangkok.  My only wish was to be able to sleep, and I sure did!  The Thai Airways economy section was very comfortable.  There was more legroom than expected on the spacious aircraft, and the colorful seats and friendly flight attendants made for a very pleasant flight.  Their motto is “smooth as silk,” and the flights really were that.  It was also a great introduction to the welcoming people of Thailand.

 Thailand has so many regions one can explore, but with only about a week to explore, we had to fit as much in as possible, so we covered Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket, which gave us the opportunity to experience a long boat ride along the Chao Phraya River outside our hotel, the Chatrium Hotel Riverside, the Grand Palace, and reclining Buddha in Bangkok, along with the red light district of Papong and the night bazaar.

Bosang Umbrella Factory; Chiang Mai

Bosang Umbrella Factory; Chiang Mai

Papong is comprised of two streets with people selling knock off purses, sunglasses, etc. and the perimeter consists of bars with women showing off talents with muscles not usually trained at the gym.  And like with all the shopping in Thailand, one should bargain for these goods as well.  The longboat ride was a great way to see the city from the river and a good intro to Bangkok.  The Chatrium properties throughout Bangkok are very comfortable and a great place to stay, especially if you plan on being in the area for awhile and want to do your own cooking.  Each suite comes with a kitchen, and many with sweeping views on the city.

Dhara Devi; Chiang Mai

Dhara Devi; Chiang Mai

One property is located more in the business district along the river, while another in the heart of the city.  On the way back from the night bazaar the first night, I was determined to get in my first massage.  It was a one hour Thai massage for just 250 baht, which is about $8.  I splurged and got a half an hour foot massage as well for $4.  With tip, an hour and a half spa treatment came to $15.  I was a happy girl.  Two days later, we all went for two hour (yes, two hours!) massages at “Let’s Relax,” in the Mandarin Hotel.  They have locations throughout Thailand, and it was one of the best massages I had in Thailand.

Mae Klang Luang Village

Mae Klang Luang Village

Chiang Mai was the next stop on the trip.  A short one hour flight took us from Bangkok to Chiang Mai aboard Thai Airways.  You can fly throughout Thailand very easily and inexpensively for around $60-$80 one way.  At first I was thinking I’d have loved to have spent more time in Bangkok, but when we arrived in Chiang Mai, I no longer felt that way.  While Bangkok is a fun city, I think it’s even more special to get out of Bangkok and see the northern and southern parts of the country for diversity in the people and activities.
Dhara Dhevi

Dhara Dhevi

IMG_0396

Iathanon National Park

In Chiang Mai, we stayed at a few different properties, each unique in its own right.  In the city, we stayed at Le Meridian and dusitD2, where we had an amazing Thai dinner in their restaurant, whose head chef was formally at the Four Seasons.  The hotels are located right near the night bazaar, which makes for some great shopping until midnight or 1am.  And yes, also near more massage storefronts.  This time I elected a foot massage, as we had hiked earlier in the day throughout the Doi Inthanon National Park. The easy to moderate hiking trail took us through gorgeous rice fields, waterfalls, and ended with a visit to the Mae Klang Luang Village, where we tasted arabica coffee and had a delicious homemade lunch.  Doi Inthanon makes for a great day trip from the city of Chiang Mai, and if you feel like immersing yourself even deeper into the culture with a community based tourism program, you can spend some time at the government’s Royal Agricultural Project and stay on property of the Royal Agricultural Station Inthanon.

Patara Elephant Farm

Patara Elephant Farm

A visit to Thailand is not complete without a visit to an elephant farm   Chang means elephant and since there is chang water, chang beer, chang pants and boxers sold on the street, we had to see the country’s animal up close and personal.  For this we went to the Patara Elephant Farm, where we  had the opportunity to feed the elephants, get into the water with them to clean them, and then go for a ride.  This  is a great activity for both kids and adults, as you can spend the day learning  all about caring for an elephant, and then take part hands on.  Naturally the kids were far less fearful about climbing up onto this huge animal than I was!

Patara Elephant Farm; Chiang Mai

Patara Elephant Farm; Chiang Mai

Also in Chiang Mai, you can visit some beautiful temples including Doi Sutwep and get blessed by the monks.  Thailand is also known for its beautiful handicrafts and silk, and in an afternoon, you can visit the Bolsang Umbrella Factory, and see how the umbrellas are made from hand, with the opportunity to purchase an umbrella or a fan and have them hand painted by the artists on premise.  For just 100 bat ($3), you can get some beautiful designs on an item of your choice, including ones you already have with you, such as a purse or camera case.
Durian Fruit

Durian Fruit

The Silk Village is a fun place to go and watch how silk is made, from the beginnings of the silk worm to the finished scarf.  In the back, one can purchase a taylor made suit or dress from thai silk, cashmere or wool and a number of other silk products.  There are many shops throughout Thailand with skilled tailors who will make suits and dresses to fit your body, but you need to allow a few days for the fittings. Jim Thompson is a well known store that sells silk garments and purses as well.  There is the main museum and also satellite stores in Bangkok’s biggest malls and I spotted one in the Phuket airport.  Chiang Mai’s Chinatown, which was located near Le Meridian and DusitD2 hotels is also a fun place to shop for food and inexpensive clothes and purses.  I picked up some pajama bottoms and tights for $1 each, and a couple of cosmetic purses, for a $1.50 each.   If you have the burning desire to try cockroaches and an assortment of other bugs, they are available there too, along with the delicious selection of fruit local to Thailand, such as the dragon fruit, passion fruit, and longan.

Tong from Trikaya Tours

Tong from Trikaya Tours

Tong from Trikiya Tours was my tour guide in Chiang Mai and he was outstanding!  We had such a fun morning together.  In addition to taking me to the local markets and shops, and to his friend’s home in the village to pick longan, he was extremely personable, knowledgeable and funny.  We used Trikaya Tours throughout the entire trip, as they have tour guides and drivers throughout Thailand.  We used the driver and guide in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket.  I arranged with the owner, Pong, to work with them on my drive to and from Chiva Som.  After an incident where I left my wallet in a bathroom rest stop, the driver,Tan, and Pong, bent over backwards to help me.  You will not be in better hands while in Thailand.  Since they are based everywhere, you’ll only have to organize your trip with one company, even though you’ll probably be hopping around.  You can check out their website here:

For our last night in Chiang Mai, we stayed at the magnificent Dhara Dhevi.  Dhara Dhevi is more than a hotel.  It is a small village on over sixty acres.  While the hotel is fairly new, it is modeled after the ancient villages and is filed with antiques throughout the property.  This property is definitely for the high end traveler,  and I promise you won’t see another property like it in Chiang Mai.  The grounds are stunning and the rooms fit for a king!  The bathroom is as big as the bedroom and gives you the option of an indoor or outdoor shower room, and a jacuzzi.  Downstairs, there was a full kitchen and piano in my living room.   We managed to sneak in some time to go for a night swim in the huge pool, which is bigger than the standard 25 meter lap pool, to burn off some of the calories we consumed at the amazing multi course meal at their French restaurant.

Phuket at the early morning market

Phuket at the early morning market

Lastly, we flew south to Phuket for the last part of our trip.  We had seen the city of Bangkok and the northern beauty of Chiang Mai.  Now it was time for the beaches and the beautiful resort Paresa.  Affectionately known as heaven, they aren’t kidding.  Set atop a mountain, the views from every spot in this resort are breathtaking.  Miles and miles of the Andaman Sea can be seen from your private plunge pool or from inside your shower, which can be taken inside or outside.  Your bedroom sliding doors open onto the terrace with your plunge pool and lounge chairs.   The resort is secluded in the wealthiest area of Phuket, so while not directly on the beach, there is a complimentary shuttle that will take you to and from the beach.  Paresa is more than just a place to stay.  The general manager and the entire staff go out of their way to make sure your visit is a productive one, catered to your interests.

Paresa Cooking Class

Paresa Cooking Class

On premise, they offer one on one cooking classes in their top notch cooking facility.  Their infinity pool is beautiful and can be rented out for dinner during your stay.  That’s right…there are beds within the pool where you can have your private dinner overlooking the sea.   Chef Luca Mancini, originally from Italy, does an amazing job with both the Italian and Thai cuisine.  For dessert, we were treated to the most expensive and rarest coffee in the world, Black Ivory Coffee, made from elephant dung in Thailand.  It may not sound the most appetizing, but Blake Dinkin is the founder, and explained and demonstrated to us the intricate process of how each cup is made.

John Gray's Sea Canoes

John Gray’s Sea Canoe

A unique tour which should not be missed while staying at Paresa is a stroll through the morning market, which opens at 1am and closes at 9am (we went at 6am) and is mostly for the locals to buy their goods and food to sell later in the day.  We made merit with the monks and had a delicious dim sum breakfast at the oldest dim sum restaurant in Phuket, Boonrat, which is only open in the early hours as well.  Our tour ended with a stroll through Old Town with its beautiful Portuguese architecture and temples.  The tour was offered by Khiri Travel, a company that organizes off the beaten path tours for travelers throughout Thailand.  Personally, I prefer delving into the heart of a culture rather than doing all the typical touristy stops, and Khiri Travel will make sure you have that opportunity. In the afternoon, we had the opportunity to take advantage of Paresa’s spa, and you guessed it, another awesome Thai massage!

Boonrat Dim Sum; Phuket

Boonrat Dim Sum; Phuket

John Gray also offers a very fun way to explore the caves of the Andaman Sea.  You’ll board a boat which will take you out to sea, serve you lunch and an incredible dinner made with all natural ingredients, as he is  a big believer in foods that promote health and vitality.  You’ll stop at various spots and get in sea canoes (up to two per canoe) with your guide. You’ll see incredible stalagmites and stalactites, bats and gorgeous scenery as you’re out in nature; just you, the birds, and the sea.
As you can see with every region, comes a variety of experiences and cultures.  One consistency is the friendly people who are always looking forward to showing you the magic of their beautiful country. Whether it’s your first or tenth visit to Thailand, the country is constantly evolving, and ready to welcome you!