EuroTrip 2017: Marseille to Aix en Provence

Market stands in a square with trees and buildings in the background.

After about 36 hours in hectic Marseille, the group was ready to check out the more quaint side of southern France. The next portion of the itinerary called for a breakfast in Marseille, followed by a drive up to Aix en Provence.

Priorities:

Day 4: Marseille/Aix en Provence

Day 4 started with another early morning run down La Canabiere to the port area, followed by checking out of the hotel and heading to Coogee for some breakfast and coffee. This was low-key one of the best meals we had on the whole trip. Nothing out of the ordinary, just very good coffee, muffins, and a fresh avocado toast with delightful smoked salmon, in a very interesting but peaceful space.

Next, before leaving Marseille for good, we wanted to get one more great panoramic view, and we had heard that there was a great one up at Notre Dame de la Garde. We heard right.

A cross and bushes in the foreground overlooking a city and mountains in the background.
The view over Marseille from Notre Dame de la Garde.

With our Instgrams all set to blow up with those sweet vistas, it was time to hit the road north to Aix en Provence.

We arrived around 12:30 at Le Pigonnet, about 5 minutes outside of downtown Aix. In the planning phase, we had made the conscious decision for the hotel in Aix to be our “splurge” hotel, since we were only staying there for one night. As we did our research we found that Le Pigonnet had a nice suite called “The Garden Apartment” available for $340. From what we could tell, it had two bedrooms, two nice bathrooms, and a big common area for the four of us to hang out in.

That was a heck of an undersell; this place was unbelievable. After checking in, we were escorted through the gorgeous grounds, back toward the pool, and through an iron gate with a “PRIVATE” sign. Through the gate was a private garden with a picnic table and lawn chairs, with a stone path leading up to a door. We stepped inside, expecting to be led down a hall to our suite, but instead, our escort simply said, “Bienvenue, enjoy your stay!”

We were in shock. The Garden Apartment consisted of a magnificent foyer, two large bedrooms each with an accompanying newly renovated luxury bathroom, a massive stocked kitchen and dining room, and a huge great room. It so exceeded our expectations that we spent probably about an hour just marveling at the place, and wondering how we got it for only $340. On our way out the front lobby we noticed a rate sign on the wall which confirmed that we had somehow landed this room at over a 50% discount. An off-season steal!

After exploring the grounds a bit, we were off to Chateau la Dorgonne, a winery about 35 minutes outside Aix, between the towns of La Tour d’Aigues and Mirabeau. Visitors to the winery are given a map of the vineyards, and have the option of taking the short route (45 minutes) or the long route (about 90 minutes) self-guided walk around the property.

Vineyards, olive trees, and mountains under a blue sky.
Mountain views on the walk around Chateau la Dorgonne.
Two women walking up a dirt road toward the setting sun.
The ladies walking into the sunset.
Olive trees, with mountains in the background.
Olive trees – the Chateau produces olive oil as well.

Upon our return to the small shop, there was a tasting set up for us, mostly consisting of their reds and Provençal rosés. The wines were very good, and the tasting was free! We bought a few bottles, and grabbed some house olive oil, with the intention of picking up a fresh, warm baguette on the ride back that we could dip in some olive oil in our *private* garden! We did just that (buy one get one free baguettes!), and enjoyed the fruits of our travels. It was a blast!

Dinner, however, presented a bit of a challenge. We wanted to check out Aux Petits Oignons, a raved-about cheap eats spot in Centre Ville, but upon further review it was closed on Tuesday evenings. Bummer! But not to worry – we had backups. Or so we thought…we made a last-minute reservation online at a place that Google Maps said was open, but when our Uber dropped us off, it was closed. WTF!? The place took the online reservation when it was closed? Poor design. I didn’t even take down the name of the place, I was so flustered.

Anyway, at least we were still feelin’ good from all that wine earlier, so our spirits were still up. We wandered around Centre Ville to see what looked good, and ended up popping into an Italian restaurant called Le Four Sous le Platane. It was a solid meal, and the first place where I tried the Provençal favorite, pastis: an anise-flavored apertif.

After dinner, we walked around Centre Ville a bit more in the dark, and we were pleasantly surprised to see that there was actually quite a bit of life in this small town on a Tuesday night. It seemed like there were a lot of students hanging out at various bars around the area. That said, we couldn’t agree on where to go next. What we could agree on was that we were already sad that we’d have to leave Le Pigonnet in the morning. So, we decided to close out the night with the delightful bartenders at the hotel bar, where we learned the phonetic difference between “beaucoup” and “beau cul.” Definitely look into that if your a first time visitor to a French-speaking country…

Day 5: Aix en Provence (morning)

We woke up the next morning planning to check out of the hotel and head back to Centre Ville to walk around in the daylight and grab some breakfast, before hitting the road back to Spain.

People on a narrow street, with a pink sign in front of a building to the left.
The narrow streets of Centre Ville, Aix en Provence.

We explored for a while before stopping at Cafe Weibel for breakfast and pastries, which was amazing – exactly what you would imagine breakfast at a French pastry shop to be.

Plates with breakfast food on a marble table and a napkin that says "Weibel."
Simple, yet delectable.

After breakfast, we perused the small market that was right outside Weibel, and picked up some aromatic Marseille soaps for Christmas stocking stuffers.

Market stands in a square with trees and buildings in the background.
A small market in Centre Ville, Aix en Provence.

And with that, we were on our way back to Barcelona, with a stop to see some sights in Girona along the way.  Or so we thought…stay tuned…

Highlights:

  • Le Pigonnet
  • Chateau la Dorgonne
  • Baguettes and olive oil
  • Centre Ville – on a Tuesday!

Next Time:

I hope to return to Provence very soon.  What else should be on the list for next time?  Leave a comment!

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EuroTrip 2017: Collioure to Marseille

Three people walking down colorful stairs with graffiti.

Part 1 of EuroTrip 2017!  I was unbelievably excited to get this trip underway – my first time in Europe!  I was a a little bit concerned that jet lag might put a damper on our enthusiasm once we touched down after the overnight flight from JFK to Barcelona, but trusty old adrenaline kicked in, and Part 1 was a grand success.

Priorities:

  • Seafood
  • Hiking in Les Calanques
  • Bouillabaisse
  • Putting our French skills to the test

Days 1 and 2 – Flight to Barcelona and Drive to Collioure/Marseille

When it was all said and done, we spent about 24 hours traveling before we could officially say that we had made it.  We had found a $400 round trip flight with Iberia from JFK to Barcelona, which meant that we had to start it all off with a 6-hour drive down to JFK from Rochester.  Add in the roughly 8 hours of flight time to Madrid, another hour to Barcelona, and some layovers, and we were just about 20 hours into the trip before we were on the road in our rental car for another 5 or 6 hours en route to Marseille!

After a lovely flight with some better-than-expected food and less-than-ideal sleep, we landed in Barcelona at around 10am on Sunday morning and got on the road in our Citroen Picasso minivan around noon.  Driving out of the airport, we were struck by how much the area around Barcelona reminded us of San Francisco.  Neighborhoods built into the hills, the dry, 60-degrees-and-sunny weather, and the water brought me back to the drive from SFO to San Francisco on West Coast Trip 2015.

After getting over some initial nerves about how I would cope with European driving (turns out they do drive on the right side of the road!), we were on our way to Marseille.  We had picked out a few options for cities and towns to check out along the way to split up the Sunday drive.  Girona, Perpignan, Collioure, and Bouzigues were all on the list, but we ended up choosing Collioure based on when we started to get hungry.

Collioure is a beautiful, tiny, fortified coastal town in France, just across the Spanish-French border.

The first order of business was finding the castle and waterfront, and snapping some pics for Instagram!  We walked through the narrow streets to get to the main waterfront area, and took in some lovely views of the Mediterranean and the castle protecting the town.

A stone fortress overlooking a small inlet of green water.
The fort protecting Collioure.
Two people sit on a rock ledge near the water, looking across the water to a hill with houses and a castle at the top.
Looking across the bay from Plage de Collioure.

Next, it was time to find some food.  Being careful to avoid the potential tourist traps near the water, we ventured back inland and checked out a few menus before landing on L’Ostra, a small oyster, tapas and wine bar.

Pan con tomate, oysters, and a bottle of wine on a wooden table.
Tapas at L’Ostra. Wine, oysters, and pa amb tomauqet – these are a few of my favorite things.

Being so close to the Spanish border, we noticed that this place almost had more of a Catalan influence than French.  We ordered pan con tomate, jamon iberico, and of course, oysters and a bottle of red wine.  The food was fantastic, and the owners of the bar were very friendly (and spoke just enough English).  It couldn’t have been a more perfect first meal of the trip.

With a little bit of daylight left, we walked around the town some more, this time getting some pictures of a tiny church on the other side of the waterfront area.

A small church and a cross on a rocky cliff by the water.
Small church on the other side of the beach. It was crazy windy over here.

With the sun starting to set, it was time to complete the journey to Marseille.  Our destination was Le Ryad boutique hotel, off of La Canabiere, which is one of the main avenues in Marseille.  After a minor mishap that resulted in me driving around the tiny streets of Marseille by myself with no phone or directions (it’s a long story), we were checked in and ready to go find some grub.

We had just enough time to walk from the hotel to Toinou for some really great seafood.  We got a huge platter of seafood with dippin’ sauces, a bunch of baguettes, and a bottle of house wine at a very reasonable price.  We were off to a great culinary start.

Several oysters, clams, and other seafood on a platter of ice.
Seafood platter from Toinou. Tres bien!

Word to the wise – I would recommend taking an Uber around La Canabiere at night, especially on a Sunday night or weeknight when the area is kind of dead.  As we walked around the corner on the way to dinner, we walked right by a legit brawl in the street, and the rest of the walk to Toinou was very desolate.  Be careful out there!

Day 3 – Marseille

The plan for Day 3 was to start off with an early hike in Parc National des Calanques, on a route that we had identified that starts in Cassis, about a 35 minute drive outside Marseille.  However, an early morning run beforehand down to the port and back revealed that it may have been a bit too cold for hiking.  We decided to bundle up anyway, and head out to Cassis.  We parked the car, got out, and instantly decided that it was indeed too cold for a hike.  But Cassis looked nice, so we decided to explore and try to find a spot for breakfast.

Three people walking next to a marina with houses in the background.
Looking for food in Cassis.

Not much was open in Cassis on a Monday morning, except for some bars on the harbor with locals drinking pastis or espresso or who knows what, curiously watching a confused group of Americans wandering aimlessly at non-peak tourist time, incredulously wondering why nothing is open.  Finally, we found a pastry shop and filled up on croissants before grabbing a “takeaway” cappuccino at one of the aforementioned bars.

While the day was off to a bit of a rough start, we figured we might be able to still catch some sweet views if we drove around the Calanques. And we were right!

Three people on the sidewalk of a windy road overlooking water and cliffs.
Travel companions clamoring for views down below. Don’t they know you gotta go UP for views?? Amateurs.

With lunchtime approaching, we headed back to the hotel to change before heading out for dejeuner at Le Fantastique. Lunch was terrific; the menu rotates constantly, as they select only three meal options to serve each day. Everything was very fresh, and reminded us all of a great home cooked meal. I chose chicken thighs over a bed of yellow rice, topped with a lovely gravy. It probably has some kind of French name, but I forgot. Oh, and good cheap wine!

Next up on the agenda was walking around Le Panier district, which is the part of town just north of the port with quiet, narrow streets and old beautiful architecture.  There was also some colorful street art in the neighborhood.

After some exploring, it was time to do some more exploring! We took a ride over to the Cours Julien neighborhood, which is supposed to be the diverse, eclectic, hipster neighborhood of Marseille – and also known for having a lot of street art. We arrived at Le Quartier de Createurs (that’s “creators,” not “creatures”) just at sunset, which allowed us to get some great pictures of the colorful “Escaliers du Cours Julien” and views out over the streets below.

Orange and pink sun setting over a busy street.
The sun sets over Marseille.
Three people walking down colorful stairs with graffiti.
Travel friends descending the Escaliers du Cours Julien.
A man and a woman posing in front of a building with colorful graffiti.
Rachel and I being edgy.

We didn’t have too much time to lollygag around unfortunately, but we had reservations for bouillabaisse at the old Marseille stand-by, Chez Fonfon. A couple of us had tried bouillabaisse in America, but it is a whole different experience in its homeland of Marseille. Or at least at Chez Fonfon.

Boats in a small harbor, with homes built into the surrounding cliffs.
The quiet harbor view from our table at Chez Fonfon.

First, the waiter brings around a massive platter of pre-prepared fish, and describes each in detail. The fish used in the day’s bouillabaisse is whatever was caught fresh at the market that morning. We had 5 varieties in ours (but I cannot remember any of them at this point).

After the fish presentation, a pleasant Frenchman comes around with a piping hot pot of red fish stew, accompanied with toasted baguette slices and various aioli and sauces. He ladled out a bowl for each of us, and we went to town on the delicious broth until, some time later, an outrageous amount of cooked fish came out on a plate for each of us, along with some potatoes.

A pile of cooked fish with a green garnish on a white plate.
This picture is deceptive – this was a LOT of fish.

The socially acceptable way to proceed from that point was to take the pieces of fish and potato, dip them into the broth, and chow down! The delightful Frenchman with the stew pot came around several more times for refills, and by the end of it all we were stuffed.

Fish pieces and potatoes swimming in a red stew with a toast on the edge of the bowl.
The final product – a delicious, if a bit monochromatic, dish of bouillabaisse.

But just because you’re stuffed doesn’t mean you can’t have dessert! The group was struck by a sweet craving, so we set back out to find some tasty treats at La Cantinetta, a very well-reviewed Italian restaurant in Cours Julien that was high on our radar. We only had the amazing desserts, but the rest of the food coming out the kitchen looked incredible as well.

A chocolate and hazelnut ice cream dessert in front of a bottle of red wine.
This speaks for itself, I think.

And just like that, after finishing off our bottle of Montepulciano, Day 3 of EuroTrip 2017 was complete!

Highlights

  • L’Ostra/Collioure
  • Toinou
  • Cours Julien
  • La Cantinetta

Next Time

  • Olympique de Marseille match
  • La Cantinetta for dinner
  • Hiking Les Calanques (when it’s a little warmer)

What do you think of this trip so far?  What did we miss?  Leave a comment!

And stay tuned for more EuroTrip 2017!

EuroTrip 2017 – Preview

A small church and a cross on a rocky cliff by the water.

Welcome to EuroTrip 2017! Here is a preview of what’s to come…

I embarked on my maiden voyage across the Atlantic with Rachel, and two of our closest friends (Steve and Nicole) about a month ago in early November. Judicious usage of my vacation time at work throughout the year allowed me to take a full week off, which we used to turn this into a Saturday – Sunday (8 days/9 nights) excursion. And I still have some time left to use for a New Year’s Eve trip!

The locations for the trip were selected somewhat randomly. We knew we wanted to go to Europe, and we spent a few months keeping an eye on flight deals from various sources, eventually choosing a round trip flight from JFK to Barcelona for $400 that we found via The Flight Deal newsletter. The deal was for the time period that we were looking at going, which also happened to be outside the peak season for visiting the Mediterranean, so we felt like we could possibly find good deals on hotels too. And we did!

Here is what the overall itinerary ended up looking like:

  • Drive from Rochester to JFK airport early Saturday.
  • Fly out of JFK Saturday evening, landing in Barcelona early Sunday morning.
  • Pick up a rental car and drive to Marseille, stopping in Collioure along the way.
A boy on a cannon pointing toward a hill across a bay, with houses and a castle atop the hill.
A young lad defends the fortified town of Collioure, near the French/Spanish border.
  • Spend 2 nights in Marseille.
The sun setting over buildings in Marseille
Watching the sunset from Cours Julien in Marseille.
  • Drive to Aix en Provence for 1 day/night.
Horses grazing near a rock wall
A couple of horses on the grounds of Chateau la Dorgonne winery in La Tour D’Aigues in Provence.
  • Drive back to Barcelona, drop off the rental car and stay 4 nights before flying back home the following Sunday morning.
Two bikers in a line of cars on a narrow street with people walking on the sidewalks
Biking the narrow streets of the Gracia neighborhood in Barcelona.

Needless to say, I will be planning a return to Europe very soon. I’m super excited to share more photos and details from this trip over the next couple of weeks. Stay tuned for breakdowns of our itineraries in Collioure, Marseille, Aix en Provence, and Barcelona!

New Year’s Eve in Ottawa

sign reading Beavertails Pastry

New Year’s Eve is coming up – an occasion that recently has called for a short trip to celebrate for my group of friends! With most lines of work offering paid holidays for NYE and/or New Year’s Day, NYE is a great excuse to plan a quick 3-4 day excursion. Over the past few years, my friends and I have chosen locations that are within close driving distance, and thus do not require us to use a lot (if any) of our vacation time.  Hanging with friends, exploring a new city, with no vacation time required??  Sign me up!

Recently, for us here in Rochester, NY, this has meant spending NYE in Boston, Montreal, and last year, Ottawa!

Here are some spots to check out if you find yourself in the Canadian capitol during the cold winter months…

Byward Market. The market itself is well worth a visit, and the surrounding neighborhood is packed with bars, restaurants, and other places of interest. Both times that I have visited Ottawa I have stayed in Airbnb’s in the ByWard Market area – it is safe, walkable, and lively.

Level One/Loft. This cafe/bar/board game heaven was our absolute favorite place that we visited in Ottawa. We loved it so much, we ended up going here twice in the few days we were there! The warm and cozy feel is a perfect break from the bitter cold outside, and their massive game library is enough to keep you and your friends busy for as long as you want to stay. They have the classics for the casual board and card game player, and even the die-hard board game enthusiast would be hard-pressed to name a game that they do not have. Throw in a dynamite tap list and really good coffee drinks, and it’s game on!

Beavertails. An Ottawa staple, these friend dough treasures are well worth braving the cold. There are multiple locations throughout the city, including one right in the Byward Market.

Nate standing in front of Beavertails sign eating
Tasty treats

Ice skating along the Rideau Canal – if it’s open. Unfortunately, both times I have been to Ottawa in the winter, the canal has been closed for skating (this time because the ice wasn’t thick enough yet, and last time because it was literally -25 degrees outside). But it usually opens up around the first week of January, so if it’s a cold early winter season it might be open for you on NYE!

Escape Rooms! If you find yourself wandering around Ottawa on New Year’s Day, you may find that, well, a lot of places are closed. As we randomly discovered, one type of establishment that must never close is escape rooms – another great activity for when it’s well below freezing temperature outside. We stumbled upon the first one, didn’t make it out, and then we made it our mission to get out of one. We ended up doing two more (successful both times!) that afternoon, and there were several more that we could have tried as well. I don’t have any real stats, but I have to think that Ottawa must have the most escape rooms per capita of any city.

Kettleman’s Bagels. Located in the Glebe neighborhood, Kettleman’s specializes in Montreal style bagels, which are smaller, denser, and sweeter (and, I think, better) than the New York style bagel.

I will definitely be back to Ottawa soon, perhaps when it’s a bit warmer than 0 degrees…comment with suggestions on what to see next time!

18 Hours of BBQ in Kansas City

A burnt end barbecue sandwich with a side of barbecue sauce.

One of the ways I like to cram in some extra exploring is by extending existing trips by a day or two, either to investigate the destination more thoroughly or check out a surrounding area.  In this case I was going to a weekend bachelor party at Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, to which the closest major airports are Kansas City and St. Louis.  I picked Kansas City, and flew in a day early to go on a tour de BBQ!

Priorities

  • BBQ
  • Bar-B-Q
  • Barbecue

Hour 1

I landed in KC around 5:30pm local time, and checked into my Airbnb, which was on a relatively quiet and picturesque street in the Midtown-Westport area.  A few of my fellow bachelor party attendees, including the bachelor, had caught wind of my idea and also flown in early, so we coordinated our Ubers to arrive at Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Q at 6:30pm.

A teal sign that says Joe's Kansas City, outside a gas station.
Joe’s Kansas City is located inside a gas station.

Previously known as Oklahoma Joe’s, Joe’s Kansas City patrons cram inside a gas station on the Kansas side of KC.  Anthony Bourdain has listed this joint as one of his “13 Places to Eat Before You Die.”  I have a hard time disagreeing with him.

I got their signature “Z-Man” sandwich – sliced brisket, with melted provolone cheese, fried onion rings, and their signature sauce.  Already in heaven, I was given a rib by one of my companions, and my head started spinning.  I thought that we have some good barbecue here in Rochester NY (which we do), but I have never had a rib this good and I don’t expect to ever again…unless I return to Joe’s.

Slab of barbecue ribs and a side of toast and potato salad.
These are the best ribs I have ever had.
A sandwich with barbecued meat, cheese, onion rings, and pickles.
The Z-Man Sandwich at Joe’s Kansas City BBQ.

Hour 2

The tour de BBQ started with a bang, but we were sure to leave enough room to try a at least one or two more smoked meats.  Next up was Q39 in Midtown – not really upscale by any means, but a bit less casual than Joe’s.  The inside was more modern and trendy, with a large full service bar and TVs to watch the games.

Wooden sign with two pink lights above it that says Q39 BBQ Wood Fired Grill
Q39 is a trendier BBQ joint, but don’t let the fancier vibe fool you. They still know how to Q it.

I had read that Kansas City smokers are judged by their burnt ends, which are regarded as a BBQ delicacy in some parts.  At Joe’s I had to try the Z-Man, so I opted to go with a basic burnt end sandwich at Q39.  The ends were super tender, and came slathered in a zesty sauce on perfectly toasted bun. 👌

A BBQ sandwich with meat, a taosted bun, and a side of sauce.
Love the simplicity of the Q39 burnt end sandwich. Nothin’ but great meat, great sauce, and toasty bread.

Hours 3 – 7

Despite our best efforts to save enough room for a third barbecue stop, we were full.  It was time to check out the bar scene, starting with Harry’s Bar and Tables.  Mind you, this was a Wednesday night, so the scene wasn’t too crazy, but it seemed like the kind of place (and surrounding area) that is probably very lively on the weekends.

After a drink on their large outdoor patio, we took an Uber over to the arcade bar Up-Down, in the Crossroads neighborhood.  At this lively spot there was a big crowd playing games, taking in some views on the top floor deck, and drinking very reasonably priced brews.

Green Lady Lounge was a short walk away, and we had another cocktail there as we watched some live jazz.  The old school jazz lounge offers free shows seven nights a week, and the bar does a solid job slingin’ tasty classic cocktails.

Hours 8 – 15

Sleep!

Hour 16

The group was up relatively early to pack up for Lake of the Ozarks, and the first stop on the way out was First Watch in North Kansas City.  After loading up on avocado toast, eggs, and maple bacon, we were off to the airport to pick up a few more people flying in for the bachelor party.

Hour 17

On the way out of the city heading south, I convinced my car mates to make one final stop for smoked meats at LC’s Bar-B-Q.

The sign outside LC's Bar-B-Q joint in Kansas City.
LC’s has more of the traditional shack vibe. My favorite kind of setting for a BBQ meal.
An open smoker with three racks of barbecued meat.
Where the magic happens at LC’s.

Here, again, I had to try the burnt ends.  While perhaps not quite as tender as Q39’s, they were still excellent, and LC’s sauce was definitely my favorite of the three places that we tried.  What I was more impressed with was the plate of rib tips that we ordered to share, which were amazing.

A plate of barbecued burnt ends.
Just meat and sauce on a Styrofoam plate. Don’t need much more than that.

And with that, at around 12:30pm we took our stuffed selves down to the lake to party.  My 18 hour Tour de BBQ was in the books.

Highlights

  • Joe’s Kansas City ribs
  • Q39 burnt ends
  • LC’s rib tips

Next Time

Looking forward to visiting more of the BBQ capitols of America!  What region or city does your favorite BBQ?  Let me know in the comments!

Weekend Trip – 24 Hours in the 1000 Islands

The 1000 Islands is a beautiful area, and as such it is a very popular place for people in New York and Ontario to have a cabin or cottage to use on summer weekends.

From Rochester, the 1000 Islands are probably at the maximum driving distance for having a weekend getaway cottage or cabin – about 3 hours, depending on the town.  One of the popular getaway towns on the St. Lawrence River is Clayton, NY.  One of my best friends has a cottage there, so Rachel and I recently took a quick weekend trip up there to hang with a couple of Bro’d Trippers!

We arrived in Clayton around noon on Saturday, and promptly made our way to the St. Lawrence Spirits Chateau, which had a marvelous view of the river.

The Saint Lawrence River
View of the St. Lawrence from the distillery

The spirits weren’t too shabby either.  The Downbound Gin was my favorite, followed closely by the Rye Knot Moonshine.  The tasting is only $5 and the spirits are strong, so be careful!

After our tasting we headed into downtown Clayton for lunch and brews at Wood Boat Brewery.

Three beers in front of a brick over at Wood Boat Brewery
Wood Boat Brewery

I was impressed by the beers, but even more so by their brick oven pizzas.  At places known for pizza I often get a basic margherita pizza so that I can compare apples to apples between restaurants, and that’s what I did here.  The crust was the highlight – perfectly browned, not too thick, not too thin, and quite flavorful.  Highly recommended.

We followed lunch up with a tasting at Coyote Moon Vineyard – we had a reservation for their wine boat cruise later in the evening, and we wanted to try their wines so that we knew what bottles we wanted to pick for the cruise.

White grapes on the vine
Grapes at Coyote Moon Vineyard

While not directly on the river, the vineyard is still quite picturesque, with a small outdoor stage for live music and a bunch of outdoor games in on the back lawn.  The tasting room is small but nice, and they give out some generous pours of their wines, which were very good.  If they have the apple pie wine slushy on tap when you visit, do it!

We had just enough time after the winery to sneak in a round of 18 at River Golf Adventures, before heading to Coyote Moon’s downtown location for the booze cruise.

Little did we know, included in the price of the cruise is a tasting of four wines, so that you can decide which bottle you want to bring on the boat.  We were OK with that!  We just doubled down on our favorites from the vineyard a couple of hours prior, and then made our way onto the boat with bottles in hand.  As with any booze cruise I’ve been on, things started a little quiet, with people kind of feeling out the scene and taking in the scenery.

A large boat on the Saint Lawrence River
Cute little boat on the river

There was a bachelorette party on the boat, us (a group of three guys and a girl), and about 30 middle aged women.  We knew that by the time everyone was halfway through their red blends, this boat was about to be lit.  Sure enough, about an hour in the trip had evolved into an all-out wine-fueled dance party.  It was a blast, and I will absolutely do this wine cruise again the next time I go up to the Islands.

After the booze cruise, shenanigans continued at O’Briens, with food, drinks and live music!

After sleeping off the prior day’s activities, the next morning started with an early run and bike ride.  And finally, on the way out of town we hit the #1 most essential stop on any trip to the islands: River Rat Cheese.  If you’re not going to get River Rat cheese curds, you might as well not even go to the 1000 Islands, and that’s a fact.

The entrance to 1000 Islands River Rat Cheese shop in Clayton, NY
Gotta get the curds!!

And just like that we were on the road back to Rochester, with curds and a block of maple cheddar in tow.  A solid 24 hour trip in the books.

What are some of your favorite weekend getaways?  Tell me in the comments!

 

Cleveland Weekend Recap

the West Side Market during winter travel to Cleveland

It was February 2016 in the Land of Always Winter, and the gods had just dumped several feet of snow on our village in the North.  While we didn’t have enough vacation time to escape to somewhere tropical, a group of five bros decided to take the first ever so-called “bro’d trip” to Cleveland, Ohio, where people could at least open their front doors without 30 minute of intense shoveling.

a car buried beneath snow in Rochester NY
We were looking to get away from this whole situation…

This was a quick weekend trip, but we tried to pack a lot in, as usual.  I had been to Cleveland before a few times, but only to go to Cleveland Indians baseball games, so I was excited to see what else the city had to offer.  After a bit of research it seemed like a cool area to hang out was the Ohio City neighborhood, so we centered our trip there.

Read on for the day-by-day play-by-play!

view of the Cleveland skyline at night from the Cleveland Hostel
View from the rooftop of the Cleveland Hostel

Day 1 – Friday

The great thing about this trip was that it did not require anyone taking any time off from work.  Cleveland is about a 4 hour drive from Rochester, and most of us were able to sneak out about an hour early to hit the road at around 5:00pm.  We piled into a Chevy Suburban and headed for The Land.

We arrived to check into The Cleveland Hostel in Ohio City shortly after 9:00pm.  I was a little nervous about staying at a hostel, but we had enough people to get our own private room.  And honestly, this place was so nice that I would stay there solo if I had to!  I was very impressed by the cleanliness, both of our room and the common area bathrooms (each with its own lockable door).  My mind was at ease that it did not seem like the kind of Hostel where torture regularly occurs.

With the night already underway, we chose to walk down the street and do a mini-bar crawl, starting out at Nano Brew for first beer.  We followed that up with some more brews and some games at ABC The Tavern, followed by Belgian beer and pizza at Bier Markt.  All of these bars and pubs were within a very short walking distance on W 25th Street, and all had great beer selection.

At around midnight, several beers in, we made the wise decision to Uber downtown to the quite nice JACK Casino to gamble the night away…

Day 2 – Saturday

sign outside the West Side Market Cafe in Cleveland
West Side Market Cafe – great for a diner breakfast before hitting the market

We had actually won some money at the casino the night before, so we were luckily able to afford breakfast at the West Side Market Cafe, which was a 3 minute walk from The Hostel.  It is an old school diner attached to the West Side Market in Ohio City, which is the oldest operating indoor/outdoor market in the city.  The cafe had really good diner food, at very affordable prices – recommended if you are staying in Ohio City!

Genessee Cream Ale sign in West Side Market Cafe
West Side Market Cafe had a Genny Cream Ale sign – a Rochester legend!

After breakfast we walked through the West Side Market and did some sampling and bargain hunting.  A fairly standard market, but if you like public markets like this, I would definitely recommend visiting.

After dropping off our goods at the Hostel, we walked over to Great Lakes Brewing Company.  We were all familiar with Great Lakes beers as they are sold all over Rochester, and it was cool to see their home base.  We went to their cellar bar to try some of their various offerings.  It was a great atmosphere, with the feel of a pub in the English countryside.  And the beers were great as well.

drinking beers in the cellar at Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland
The cellar pub at Great Lakes Brewing Company

Back near the West Side Market was our next stop at Market Garden Brewery, with good house brews and several TVs for watching college basketball, which we did for an hour or two.

Next up was the Brite Winter Festival, a yearly event held in the West Bank Flats area with music, arts and crafts, and the like.  The weather was actually pretty nice, sunny and about 50 degrees which is not bad at all for February in the Great Lakes region.  We listened to some live music, grabbed some drinks, and got dinner at the Fired Up Taco Truck, which was possibly the highlight of the whole trip.  This food truck knows how to do it – incredible tacos, empanadas, and burritos.  In the three hours that we spent at the festival, I made three separate trips to this truck for grub.

people gather underneath a bridge in Cleveland for the Brite Winter music festival
The crowd gathering at Brite Winter Fest

After a few hours at the festival, the sun had long since gone down and it was getting really chilly.  We were quite impressed by the casino the night before (particularly by the fact that we still had money when we left), so we couldn’t resist the urge to go back and try our luck again.  I actually came out even this time, but my traveling companions were not so lucky…

Once the group had lost a sufficient amount of money, we knew that Market Garden Brewery was very close to the Hostel and served food late night, so we went back to try some of the food that we had seen leaving the kitchen earlier.  I would call it a step up from your traditional pub fare, and it was quite good, even late!  We then retired for the night, with our sights set on brunch.

Day 3 – Sunday

We chose Tremont Tap House for brunch in the Tremont neighborhood, which neighbors Ohio City.  We started with some tasty oysters (which recently have become my favorite thing), followed by more traditional brunch fare, which was fantastic.  A great way to end the trip and fuel up for the ride home.

But we weren’t quite done yet!  We needed some brunch dessert, obviously.  We knew there was a Spudnuts on the route home, so we stopped in for some potato-based donuts, which were well worth the stop.

Spudnuts sign at donut shop outside of Cleveland
Stopped at Spudnuts for brunch dessert on the way home

And with that, the inaugural bro’d trip was in the books, confirming Cleveland as a worthy destination within driving distance for a quick weekend change of scenery.  I will be back!

Highlights

  • The Cleveland Hostel
  • Fired Up Taco Truck
  • Great Lakes Brewing

Next Time

What did I miss?  What areas of Cleveland should I check out next time?  Let me know in the comments!

 

Southeast Trip 2016 – Nashville

the Stacy Mitchhart band playing live music at Bourbon Street Blues Bar in Nashville

I was very excited to show my travel squad around Music City, and check out some new places as well.  Let’s get right to it!

Priorities:

  • Hot chicken
  • Live music
  • BBQ
  • New neighborhoods

Day 5 – Wednesday (cont.)

We had worked up quite the appetite on our Fiery Gizzard Trail hike, and I couldn’t think of anything that I wanted to do more than get some Nashville hot chicken.  We pulled directly into Hattie B’s at around 4:30pm, delighted to see that we had timed it perfectly and there was actually NOT a line out the door and around the building!

hot chicken at Hattie B's in Nashville
Hot chicken (level “Hot” – wouldn’t dare do “Shut The Cluck Up”), collards, and pimento mac.

We weren’t the only ones in on this secret quiet time at Hattie B’s – when we sat down we noticed some bodyguard type figures roaming around the restaurant looking shady.  We looked to our left, and at the table across the aisle from us sat Chris Chrisley (I think his name is actually Todd – of Chrisley Knows Best on USA Network).  It pleased us that we had chosen a place where the stars dine…

I had been to Hattie B’s before a couple of times, but this was the first time that I ventured above the medium level of spice.  It was an adventure for sure, but I’d do it again!  The travel crew, however, was shocked at how hot the medium and mild levels were.  Luckily, a kind staff member brought over complimentary banana bread pudding to cool down the taste buds 👍.

After some logistics time (checking into the Airbnb, returning the rental car, shower, blah blah blah), we headed down to Broadway to take in some live music and see the sights.  We took a stroll up and down the main drag, observing the hordes of bachelorette parties and tourists, before popping into Layla’s to catch some bluegrass music.  After  a couple of Dos Perros (my favorite local drinkin’ beer), we decided it was time to head to the Nashville tourist’s Mecca: Tootsie’s.  With three floors of live music, plenty of cheap beers, and swaths of sweaty dancin’ boot-wearin’ toursits, it really is a must-see.  We spent the better part of three hours with the 2nd floor band, which was playing a good mix of stadium country, real country, and 90’s hits.

After Tootsie’s, we stumbled across the street to Paradise Park for some pretty gross but good drunk food before heading back to the Airbnb for the night.

Day 6 – Thursday

Thursday morning started with a late morning run and workout at the apartment complex gym to shake off the prior night’s activities.  By the time everyone was showered and ready to get back at it, lunch time was right around the corner.  So we chose to forego brunch and went straight to the 12 South neighborhood for some solid barbecue at Edley’s, which we confirmed with some locals is definitely among the top three BBQ joints in Nashville.

From there we walked to Frothy Monkey for a coffee, and then across the street to Five Daughters Bakery, where we tried a couple of famed 100-layer donuts.  We definitely did not have room, but we had to try ’em.

two croissant donuts from Five Daughters in Nashville
100-layer donuts from Five Daughters Bakery. This was not breakfast, it was lunch dessert.

After all that eating, we needed to walk around for a bit.  We decided to head over to the up and coming Germantown neighborhood to walk about and explore.  It was an interesting stroll, with some nice little houses interspersed with some run down homes, and some nice looking buildings and businesses mixed in with some rundown old warehouses.  Your classic mid-gentrification scene.  We popped into a few small shops along the way and just enjoyed the weather for a while, before hopping in an Uber back downtown en route to the Pinewood Social.

bowling alley at the Pinewood Social in Nashville
Old school alleys at Pinewood Social.

As I mentioned with regard to the Southside Social in Chattanooga, I love this kind of place.  The Pinewood Social seemed to be on the classier side of socials – with a more refined look, a quieter coffee shop area, a beautiful bar with a refined cocktail menu, some private dining rooms, the alley area, and bocce and a pool – and, of course, an Airstream – outside.  We tried a few of their fantastic cocktails and rolled a couple games of bocce before heading back to the Airbnb to get ready for dinner.

Rachel and I got ready first, and while the others freshened up we headed over to Yazoo Brewing Company for a flight (Dos Perros is still my favorite!).  From there, we were a short walk through the Gulch to our next destination – dinner with my long lost cousins!  We met them and the rest of our crew (plus Alena’s boyfriend, who had recently arrived) at Saint Añejo, a trendy Mexican restaurant.  The food and the margaritas were splendid, as was catching up with family that I hadn’t seen in years!

After dinner was one of the things I had been waiting the entire trip for.  During my previous Nashville trip, myself and a coworker stumbled upon Printers Alley, specifically the Bourbon Street Boogie and Blues Bar.  There, we saw one of the most entertaining live bands I have ever experienced – The Stacey Mitchhart Band.  Bourbon Street is their home venue, so I made sure to check on when they were playing this time around.  Stacey Mitchhart is fuego on the guitar, the rest of the band is filthy good, and they play great music – a good mix of originals and classic blues/rock jams.  The venue itself is very small and intimate, pretty divey, and when the band turns it up, it is bumpin’ in there!!  I was in my element.

travel companions watching a live music show at Bourbon Street Blues Bar in Nashville
Travel squad enjoying the music at Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar.

After a few hours (and a few jello shots) there, we had to take Alena’s boyfriend over to Tootsie’s.  Which we did, followed by a stop next door at Legends Corner for another live band, before calling it a night and ordering some late-night pizza back at the Airbnb.

Day 7 – Friday

Friday started with another morning run and workout, before heading to the famed Pancake Pantry for breakfast.  If going here, make sure you block off at least 45-60 minutes of wait time!

sign outside of Pancake Pantry
Waiting in line for Pancake Pantry on Belcourt Ave in Hillsboro Village.

We waited outside in the chilly morning air as the line slowly inched forward, until we were finally in.  And oh boy, was it worth the wait:

crepes with raspberry, chocolate, and whipped cream at Pancake Pantry in Nashville
Yup.

Next on the agenda was a trip out to the Gaylord Opryland Resort, preceded by a cup of joe at the hip Cafe Coco while we waited for our Uber.  Walking around the resort ended up being a pretty good activity in the crappy rainy weather that we were experiencing.  Not sure I would recommend it if the weather was nice and you were only in Nashville for a few days – it is a bit of a drive outside the city.  But it certainly was impressive.

By the time we got back into the city it was almost time for supper already.  I had intentionally left this night open for improvisation, thinking that we would have spotted or thought of something that we wanted to do or eat.  It turns out we were not inspired to do anything specific, so we just headed back down to the Gulch where we were the night before, and popped into a bunch of the numerous restaurants in the area to check on the wait time.  We ended up landing at Virago, a trendy sushi/Asian fusion place.

After a very tasty dinner and a few drinks, we went to check out the truly impressive beer selection at Flying Saucer, where we met up with an old friend from college who happened to be visiting from Memphis at the time!  We drank the night away, reminiscing and catching up until the place closed down, before we reluctantly went back to the Airbnb, depressed that our trip had come to an end.

Day 8 – Saturday

Back to reality 😢.  Saturday morning we packed up our things, and had time for one final meal.  We again found ourselves in the the same cluster of restaurants in the Gulch, with another college friend this time at The Whiskey Kitchen.  After one last fried chicken, it was time to head to the airport for our flights back home…

Stay tuned for lessons learned from Southeast Trip 2016!

Highlights:

  • Stacy Mitchhart Band
  • Seeing my cousins!
  • Hattie B’s

Next Time:

People are flocking to Nashville and the city is changing rapidly.  What’s new?  What did I miss?  Add a comment!

Southeast Trip 2016 – Fiery Gizzard Trail Hike

Next up on our Southeast trip was taking on one of the top-20 hikes in America: the Fiery Gizzard Trail!

Day 5 – Wednesday (cont.)

The Fiery Gizzard Trail runs along the Fiery Gizzard Creek for about 13 miles, from Tracy City to Foster Falls in southeastern Tennessee.  We did not have time to do the entire 13 miles, and we determined that the Tracy City end of the trail was the easiest for us to get to in the car, so we started in the Grundy Forest State Park.

Day 5 – Wednesday (cont.)

Driving through Tracy City seemed like an adventure in itself.  It is a sleepy, rundown town of about 1,000 (none of whom we physically saw) that reminded me of a Criminal Minds episode.  Fortunately, we eventually made it to the park without being abducted by a serial killer, and at the trail head there a few families and couples getting ready to hike as well.

Lucky for us, the other groups were only there to explore the Grundy Day Loop, which is a short (maybe a mile or so) loop trail which, well, you can easily do in a day.  About a half mile into the loop, the real fun begins on the Fiery Gizzard trail.  We did an out and back about 4 miles each way, and in just those 4 miles we encountered all kinds of terrain.  Rocky climbs, creeks, woods, fields, falls – a little bit of everything!  The best thing was that we had the trail all to ourselves.  We only encountered one lone hiker for the four or five hours that we were out there.  And he looked legit, so we knew we had made a good trail choice.

The scenery on this hike was so great, I’ll just let the photos speak for themselves!

small waterfall on Fiery Gizzard creek
Creek scenery early in the hike.
reflection of red trees in the creek during our Fiery Gizzard trail hike
Some fall colors starting to show.
a small waterfall and creek on the Fiery Gizzard trail hike
Another small waterfall on the Fiery Gizzard Creek.
woods with trees changing colors for the fall
After a rocky climb up from the creek, the trail turns up a wooded hill where the autumn colors were more prominent.
a sign warning that the falls are dry and the trail is overrun by hornets
Thank you, previous hiker. We chose not to branch off the trail to see Yellow Pine Falls. Successfully avoided “So pain. Much stings.”
Rachel looking out over the trees at Werner Point
We turned around at Werner Point, a beautiful viewpoint overlooking a valley of fall colors!
travel friends looking out over the trees at Werner Point
Travel squad taking in the view at Werner Point.

Next time I am in the area, I will be sure to set aside some more time to either go further down the trail, or perhaps try to start from the other end.  This was a fantastic hike, and exactly the kind of nature break we needed before closing the trip out with a few more days of urban exploring!

Stay tuned for the final leg of Southeast Trip 2016: Nashville!

Southeast Trip 2016 – Blue Ridge Parkway and Chattanooga

overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains as we travel down the Blue Ridge Parkway

After our biscuits in Asheville, it was time to take the Jeep down the Blue Ridge Parkway en route to Chattanooga!

Priorities:

  • Moderately challenging hikes with views
  • Taking the long way to Chattanooga on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Day 3 – Monday (cont.)

The goal for the drive from Asheville to Chattanooga was to get some great views on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and pick a good hike on the way.  The Blue Ridge Parkway is regarded as one of the best drives in America.  The winding roads through the mountains are especially picturesque in the fall, and there are plenty of opportunities to pull off to the side of the road and get some good pics.

travel companions overlooking Cherry Cove in the Blue Ridge Mountains
Plenty of scenic overlooks on the Blue Ridge Parkway

About halfway through the drive, we found the hike that we had selected: Devil’s Courthouse.  There is an easier way to get to the “courthouse,” but we chose a longer hike a little more off the beaten path.  It wasn’t too challenging, and after about an hour we were at our destination with a pretty sweet view.

 

me looking over Devils Courthouse
Taking in the view
Nate Rachel and Hilary in the woods
Goofin’ around

We arrived in Chattanooga around 5:30 and checked into our Airbnb in the Southside neighborhood.  The neighborhood seems to be undergoing the type of revitalization that seems to be going on in many mid-market cities these days – a previously-industrial warehouse type neighborhood being renovated into apartments, bars, and the like.  In Chattanooga, the Airbnb scene is definitely the way to go; there seemed to be a lot of really nice apartments available in good areas for good prices.

We were all pretty tired, so we decided to just get some dinner and turn in for the night.  We walked over to Terminal Brewhouse, which had quite good food and brews.  We gravitated toward the Southsidenstein Stout – a perfect beer for a #steintinerary.

Day 4 – Tuesday

For Rachel and me, Tuesday started off with a run up Market Street to the Tennessee River and back, in an attempt to do something somewhat healthy for once.  We instantly undid that with a big ol’ brunch at Bluegrass Grill, the top rated brunch place in Chattanooga.  From there, we walked over to Mean Mug for a coffee while we planned our next move.

It was a lovely day, so we determined our next move would be to meander about the Tennessee Riverwalk, and just chill outside for a bit!

view of a bridge from a dock on the Tennesee River in Chattanooga
A gorgeous day on the Tennesee River
view of the Tennesee Aquarium from the river
Looking back at the Tennessee Aquarium from a dock on the river
travel companions walking up a winding path on the Tennessee Riverwalk
The Lombard Street of Tennessee

Next, we wanted some inside time.  We tried to get into the Hunter Museum of American Art, but we thought the price was a little steep.  So instead of that, we walked back over to the Tennessee Aquarium.  It was definitely one of the more upper-echelon aquariums that I have visited, though I admit I haven’t been to many…

After the aquarium, Alena had some work to do for school, so the rest of us dropped her off back at the Airbnb and headed back out to walk around on a quest for snacks.  We stumbled upon the Hot Chocolatier, and got a ridiculous amount of sweets.  It was not your typical small-scale bakery or sweets spot, there was plenty of seating and it seemed like more of a large scale operation.  Quite good, but we ate way too much!

Next it was time to start drinking.  We had to do something to make ourselves forget about what we had just done to our pancreases.  Right down the street from our Airbnb was the Chattanooga Brewing Company, where we had a downright delightful experience.  The staff was super-friendly, they had a lovely outdoor patio, and the beers were outstanding.  If you go in the fall, definitely get the Oktoberfest – one of my favorite fall beers ever!

beer flight at Chattanooga Brewing Company
My kind of Tuesday afternoon

After a couple of flights, we made our way next door to the Southside Social.  In my research of the South, I noticed that these “socials” seem to be a thing down there.  Bigger establishments with food, drinks, bowling, large outdoor areas with lawn games, and the like.  A wonderful concept if you ask me (I’m very excited that one of these just opened in Rochester).  Again, this was a Tuesday afternoon, so we pretty much had our run of the place, including the Airstream outside which we posted up in for a drink or two.

drinking beers inside an Airstream in Chattanooga
Enjoying some brews in an Airstream at Southside Social

After the Social, we took an Uber back up to the river to have a delightful meal at Tony’s Pasta Shop and Trattoria, followed by post-dinner drinks at the divey Brewhaus across the river, and the trendy Flying Squirrel, which was probably the highlight of the places we visited in Chattanooga.  The building and space were gorgeous, and they had a great cocktail lineup and a lively crowd, even on a Tuesday.

Day 5 – Wednesday

We were up early on Wednesday morning, packing up for another hike day!  By the time we hit the road, we realized that we had established a tradition: hike day biscuits.

biscuit with fried chicken, cheese and apple butter, with a side of mac and cheese
“The Farmer” has fried chicken, pecan smoked bacon, cheddar, and house-made apple butter

After some hike fuel at Maple Street Biscuit Company we were ready to take on the Fiery Gizzard Trail…more on that coming soon!

Highlights:

  • Blue Ridge Parkway drive
  • Chattanooga Brewing Company
  • The Flying Squirrel

Next Time:

  • More hiking – either on Signal Mountain or Lookout Mountain
  • Paddleboarding or kayaking on the Tennessee River

What are your favorite hikes in the North Carolina mountains?  Hit me in the DMs!