Wednesday, November 19, 2014

How to Get Around in Napa? Hire a Driver

Driving in Napa is easy, but touring the wine country after sipping multiple types of wine at each winery is difficult without having a designated driver, and who goes to Napa to be the designated driver? Drinking wine is the point of the trip!  

When we were planning our trip to Napa, we knew that we wanted to visit as many wineries as possible in the short time we were there. Hiring a driver was definitely the way to go, so upon recommendation, we hired Napa Your Way to help plan a lovely day of touring wineries.  When we first contacted Brad and Leisl from Napa Your Way, they asked us questions about what types of wine we like to drink, did we want to tour large, medium, or boutique sized wineries, and did we want to schedule a restaurant lunch or a picnic lunch? After collecting our information, they crafted a perfect experience for my group.

On our tour day, we were picked up at our hotel in a spacious Yukon Denali.  Leisl asked us to pick out our lunch requests from Genova Deli, as she would be setting up our picnic lunch during our second winery tour. A short distance from out hotel, we arrived at our first winery, Del Dotto Historic Winery and Caves.  We pulled up to a beautiful ivy covered stone building, that looked like it was straight out of a Napa guide book. 




At this winery, we took the tour of the wine cave and we were able to sample different wines straight from the barrels in the cave, of course with assistance from our tour guide.  After eight different samples of wine, our tour guide brought us to a room for cheese and crackers, where he was also available to answer any further questions we had about the wines. The wine tour and cave experience was a great first start to the day. 
Wine barrels in the cave at Del Dotto Winery
As per Leisl's suggestion, we only signed up to do one wine tour, as the information would get redundant at each winery.  So at the next three wineries we only signed up to sample the "flight," or selection of wines for tasting, which was about four to five different wines at each winery.  Each of the next three wineries that Leisl and Brad put on our itinerary had different wines for us to sample, as well as different views for us to enjoy while tasting our "flight" of wines. 

At Luna Vineyards, we tasted our wines on the porch during the mid day California sun. Then, Leisl had set up our picnic lunch from Genova Deli on bistro tables under a tree right next to the grapevines.  The food and the view could not have been more magical.  


Eating our picnic lunch under a tree next to the vineyard at Luna Winery
Lunch from Genova's Deli

Then we were off to Reynold's Family Winery to taste our next "flight" of wines where we sat outside outside on the patio under an umbrella enjoying the view of the rolling vineyards surrounding us. 


The view from our patio table at  Reynold's Family Winery.

The final destination on our wine itinerary was the O'Brien Estate Winery, where we sat a a big wooden farm table discussing the "flight" of wines with the wine barrels behind us, and the view of the vineyard in front of us through the sliding barn door.  


Wine barrels at O'Brien's Estate Winery
Overall, our Napa Experience was amazing and we owe it all to Brad and Leisl for creating such a unique, informative, and relaxing itinerary for our day of wine touring. Next time we are in Napa, we will definitely contact Leisel and Brad at Napa Your Way to create another unique wine tour adventure. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How to Make the Most of San Francisco in 24 Hours

On a recent trip to California with my husband and friends, we chose to spend the first night of our five night trip in San Francisco, before we ventured on to our destination.  We were flying into SFO, so instead of getting in the car and traveling out to wine country straight from the airport, we decided to stretch our legs after the six hour flight and do so some sightseeing in San Francisco. 

Nothing about our first night in San Francisco was planned in advance except for our hotel and our dinner reservation for that evening.  My friend and I chose the hotel based on the fact that we wanted to be within walking distance of Fisherman's Wharf, which would enable us to explore the area on foot with ease, and then walk to dinner later that night, as well. 



At 12:00 PM, our 24 hour whirlwind tour of San Francisco began when we arrived at SFO airport. We made our way to the hotel, dropped our bags at the front desk, and set out for the pier to grab some lunch.  We found a bar and grill right on the water with a great view of Alcatraz Island.  

The view of Alcatraz from the restaurant .

At 3:30 PM, after our inaugural drink and sour dough bread, we were off to explore the pier, when we spotted the seals relaxing in the sun on a nearby dock. They were sunbathing  and singing their seal songs as people snapped pictures. 

Sunbathing seals on the docks of Fisherman's Wharf.

At 4:30 PM, since we had no time to take formal tour of Alcatraz, we purchased tickets for a one hour ferry ride  on the Blue and Gold Fleet that cruised under the Golden Gate Bridge, and circled Alcatraz Island. This cruise was not only scenic for all of the obvious reasons, but since we departed at 4:30 PM, we were able to view the Golden Gate Bridge during sunset.  This was such a bonus, because it made the views, and photos even more majestic.  






By 7:00 PM , we were walking to the Stinking Rose for dinner,  a restaurant famous for using a lot of garlic in its recipes. Many people who have visited San Francisco recommended the restaurant as a "must do" when in town, so we reserved our table in advance.  Overall the restaurant was great and we enjoyed our dinner. 




At 9:30 AM the next morning we had breakfast at a local restaurant, purchased some souvenirs, and then walked the pier for an hour where we checked out the old battleship the  SS Jeremiah O'Brien.


At 10:30 AM we packed up the car, checked out of the hotel and drove a few blocks toward the curviest street in the USA, Lombard Street.  We took a quick, yet careful,winding drive down the road while snapping more pictures.  




By 11:00 AM we were on the move toward Marin Headlands, which hailed breathtaking views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge from up above.  After walking around the old arsenal, and snapping about fifty more pictures, we were off to our next destination.  

The View from the Marin Headlands.

By 12:00 PM , we were no longer in San Francisco, so this technically didn't count toward the 24 hours of San Francisco fun, but we did make a quick stop in the quaint town of Sausalito for two hours where we had a quick bite to eat and we did some window shopping.

At 2:00 PM, we visited Muir Woods where there are scenic paths to walk through the giant redwood trees. It is also the location where scenes from Return of the Jedi were filmed.  

All that in 24 hours, and it didn't seem rushed because we let the plans develop at our whim. When traveling to different cities,  I have found that it's best to have a few things planned with a lot of buffer time in between, and then leave the rest to impromptu exploration.  I don't suggest going into a city with no ideas about what sights there are to see, but planning every minute will only lead to frustration if lines are delayed, or if it takes longer to walk/drive from destination to destination.  

So even though I had never been to San Francisco before, I packed in 24 hours of fun that made me feel like I had been in the city for much longer. With a few things planned, and a list of possibilities, my group was able to maximize our experience in San Francisco in just 24 hours.

Here's the list again of all of the places I packed into my 24 hours:
1. Lunch at  on Fisherman's Wharf
2. Visited the seals at the Pier
3. Ferry Ride Under the Golden Gate and around Alcatraz
4. Dinner at The Stinking Rose
5. Breakfast near Fisherman's Wharf
6. Shopped for Souvenirs
9. Drove over the Golden Gate Bride
10. Views from Marin Headlands.
Bonus: 





 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Random Recipe Night

So, I cooked Chili Mac and Cheese last night. Cue the thunder and lightning (and sarcasm). The funny thing is that I am a really good cook, or rather I can follow a recipe like nobody's business, however I rarely have time to practice the craft on a regular basis. My family does not go unfed, as we eat breakfast at home and mostly pack our lunches for school and work rather than purchasing lunch, but somehow the after school and work hours explode into a race against the clock, and thus our family will dine locally, or bring food in, as we have many healthy options in the area. 

Last night's random recipe, Chili Mac and Cheese,  was not so random, as I OFTEN pin recipes from Pinterest that look tasty and easy to make, but I don't cook them as often as I would like.  As a matter of fact I pinned this recipe yesterday morning as I drank my coffee before work.  As the day progressed, I kept thinking about how busy my night would be with kid errands and sports games, that I mentally browsed my cabinets and realized that I actually had all of the ingredients for this recipe in my pantry.  Shocker, because I am not a "prepper", and I do not have stockpiles of supplies in cabinets and freezers.  I am more of a pick up a few fresh things during the week, rather than a person who freezes four months worth of meat.  That's how my grandmother did it, so I guess old habits die hard. 

Back to the recipe. Here's the original pin for Chili Mac and Cheese that I found on Pinterest from the website Damn Delicious. 


And here's my version..


The only thing I changed in the recipe is that I substituted the ground beef with chicken sausage, because that's what I had fresh in the refrigerator, and I used a black bean instead of a white bean, because that 's what I had in the pantry. I didn't have parsley handy, but we did sprinkle the cheese on top of our individual bowls.  

My family usually likes the meals that I cook (when I cook) but everyone LOVED this dish, especially my son who had two helpings. With the winter season being my family's busiest time of year, Random Recipe Night will soon play a major role in our work week.  

Monday, November 3, 2014

Saturday Night's Understudy

For as long as I can remember, Friday nights have been reserved for winding down the work week, attending our kids' activities, ordering some take-out, and then probably collapsing on the couch to catch up on a few favorite shows.  More so than not, it was almost a given that we gave Friday the cold shoulder, convincing ourselves that we were too tired to do anything remotely fun.

This trend was not a purposeful decision, it was one that developed over time. When our children were little, we only planned a Saturday night outing, as going out both Friday and Saturday nights seemed criminal.  Then it was the kids'  activities or sports that took over the Friday night slot, and when they were teens we found ourselves hosting a lot of the Friday night "hang outs," which was not a bad deal because at least we knew where they were.


So for two decades, Friday night has been patiently waiting in the wings as Saturday night's understudy, hoping to be put in the line up.  On very rare occasions, Friday night has gotten its chance to play a leading role, but it was so rare that we ever broke from the take-out, couch and TV routine.

When dining with longtime friends on a recent Friday night, we were all in agreement that going out on Friday night made the weekend seem longer, and the pressure to plan the perfect Saturday night was no longer an issue. Now, at minimum, we make the conscious decision to grab a local dinner on Friday nights.  We have even become regulars at a local establishment, and the owners take special care of us when we come in, knowing that we are frequent patrons.


So Friday night is no longer the forgotten understudy to Saturday night.  Even if it's the two of us having dinner at our local place and a quick run through the local big box store for a hundred dollars of unnecessary items, Friday is now in the spotlight and sparkles just as brightly as Saturday night.



Thursday, October 9, 2014

Groceries Delivered to Your Home...Why Wouldn't You?

More than a  decade ago, my sister in law was telling me about her friend who was getting her groceries delivered to the house. She went online, picked out her products, picked a delivery time, and PRESTO.......groceries delivered. SIGN ME UP!!

Having young children at the time,as well, I was calculating all of the time I could save not having to spend countless hours in the grocery store doing that big weekly shopping run. It aggravated me to the core.  Put the groceries in the cart.  Take the groceries out and put them on the belt for checkout. Put the groceries in bags and put them back in the cart. Take the groceries out of the cart and load them in the car. Take the groceries out of the car and bring them in the house. Take the groceries out of the bags and put them away.  Oh the monotony of it all, and I haven't even mentioned doing all of that with kids in tow, which ups the aggregation level exponentially.

So, I signed myself up for PEAPOD at www.peapod.com, Stop and Shop's grocery delivery service.  I created an account, entered my savings card number, picked a delivery time, and started shopping. It couldn't have been easier.  The first time I picked out the items I wanted, it took a little time, as I was mentally walking down the grocery aisle trying to remember the usual items I would place in my cart. However it didn't take nearly as much time as going to the grocery store.  Not even close.

Once your list is created, it is saved forever on one big jumbo list that you can refer to and add new things. If you order frequently enough, you will have the option to "Guess My Order," which fills your cart with the high frequency items you generally order.  All of which you can delete if you don't need those items that week.



On delivery day, the Peapod truck pulls up, and they bring the groceries into your house. Yes, they bring them into your house! They will bring them right into you kitchen for you if you want, but we just have them leave them in foyer.  It takes them less than five minutes to bring in all of your bags, and all I have to do is put them away. What a time saver!

You many be thinking that having your groceries delivered won't allow you to pick out your own fruit or meats, that they won't have the items you are looking for, or that the delivery charge will be too high. It is true that you are relinquishing control of a large part of the grocery shopping process, but I have never had an issue with my fruit being bruised, my meats being anything but the same quality I would have chosen for myself, and the delivery charge is a standard $6.95.  Plus, they honor all of the same coupons and weekly specials that you find in the store. Overall, the rewards greatly outweigh the risks.

There are the naysayers though, and to them I ask WHY?  People I work with, people who have young children and babies, acquaintances, and even friends,  all who have heard me rave about grocery delivery, yet still they choose to not maximize their free time.   Some have said that going to the grocery story gives them a little free time away from the kids, but wouldn't you rather use that two and a half hours of kid-free time shopping for a new pair of shoes, having lunch with a friend, or working on a hobby?

When I first started Peapoding, yes I just used it as a verb, I told everyone I knew about this newfound luxury that had increased my free time. Neighbors saw the Peapod truck pull up to my house, and slowly we saw more and more neighbors welcoming the Peapod truck to their houses. I even have the app downloaded on my phone so I can add an item at any time, or switch a delivery date due to a conflict.



Truth be told, I do actually set foot in grocery stores once in a while, because sometimes I need a few things or I am planning a special meal at the last minute. Gone are the days, though, of the over flowing shopping cart and the monotonous placement of items in and out of said cart.

When my daughter moved into college last year, I joked that I would send Peapod to her dorm! I actually wasn't joking, because I totally would!

Grocery delivery to college! Now that's service. 



With the hectic lives we lead, why wouldn't you have your groceries delivered?






Monday, September 22, 2014

Fall Bucket List: Feasts, Festivals, and Fairs

What's on the Fall Bucket List this year? Feasts, Festivals, and Fairs.  I was inspired to make this my unofficial goal of the fall season, as there are so many different experiences to choose from that I could fill my calendar every weekend.  The inspiration for this bucket list originated from a gorgeous day we experienced prior to the fall season when we attended the Oyster Festival in Asbury Park, NJ with some friends.





The weather was superb, music was playing in the background, there was an abundance of food and drinks to try (even if you are not a seafood lover), and of course there were some local vendors peddling their artistic wares. All in all, it was a perfect day and I started to search for other feasts, festivals, and fairs to attend during the fall season.






Hungarian Chimney Cakes...so good!
While some of us ate some oysters at the festival, I spotted my favorite food at the  El Lechon Negron food truck.  I couldn't pass it up, so my husband and I secured some Pernil and Tostones.  

El Lechon Negron Food Truck

Tostones!

Pernil..Pork with Spanish Rice with a garnish of
Plaintains on top.Yummmmm!

After the Oyster Festival, I started to scan the internet for other events going on during the fall season. There are so many to choose from, of course most of them involve food, but that's what makes them great.  There are three upcoming events that I am looking to attend to fill my fall bucket list for feasts, festivals, and fairs. The first one is The Zombie Walk in Asbury Park on October 4th.  


                    

This is one my son will absolutely love, as he is a HUGE fan of The Walking Dead. Last year it was the largest gathering of Zombies and it secured the title in the Guinness Book of World Records. This year's theme is "GREY MATTERS" and it will start the campaign to raise awareness about brain cancer, with proceeds benefitting Camp Jinka, a summer camp for kids and families are battling the disease.  There will be events starting at 10AM all the way through 9PM,.   They are even having a food drive to restock the shelves at MOVE FOR HUNGER.  Overall it looks like it will be a day of fun, entertainment and charity.  

The last two upcoming events on the Bucket list this fall's Feasts, Festivals, and Fairs are the Belmar Oktoberfest on October 12th, and the Red Bank Food and Wine Walk on October 19th.  

Belmar Oktoberfest
Food, Wine, and Red Bank..Perfect together!

So there you have it.  Three events on the upcoming list. Looking forward to filling my bucket (and my plate) with new experiences to report.


.




Saturday, September 20, 2014

Pumpkin Flavored Everything: The Flavor Virus




Sondheim should have penned the lyrics, "Everything's coming up PUMPKINS," rather than roses, because as soon as we flip the calendar page from August to September, or swipe it, everything becomes pumpkin flavored!  So many things take on the autumnal flavor of the pumpkin, but have we gone over the top with the pumpkin flavor? Indeed, I think we have.  

Summer is officially over in two days, and we are
already inundated with pumpkin flavored everything!
 

There once was a time that I looked forward to the rare establishment that served pumpkin flavored ice cream during the fall. It was a treat, a gentle reminder that Thanksgiving was on the way, and that we would soon be having pumpkin pie! Finding the rare pumpkin flavored treat before our day of thanks was like sneaking a peek at your presents; you knew what you were getting, but you were still excited to get it when you unwrapped it.  

Now, by the time Thanksgiving arrives, I am pumkined-out!  After smelling it infused into coffee for three months, seeing it in every yogurt shop and bakery, not to mention on many of the restaurant dessert menus, it has taken over society like a flavor virus.  There were a few years that I wasn't even in the mood for pumpkin pie on the day you are supposed to eat pumpkin pie. 

Some may argue that the pumpkin flavor tsunami of Autumn is a joyous time of year, but so many of us just want to enjoy these delights at the flavor appropriate time.  Last year, I refused to eat or drink anything pumpkin flavored until Thanksgiving.  I enjoyed my pumpkin slices (of course I ate more than one), but noticed that I was the only one in my family eating the pumpkin pie. Everyone else had been on pumpkin overload so they reached for the other desserts. 

So, now it's my annual tradition to skip the pumpkin-flavored anything until I can experience it on Thanksgiving.  At least I won't have to fight anyone for a slice, or two, of pumpkin pie!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

New Year's Eve Abroad

This New Year’s Eve will mark our family’s fifth New Year’s Eve in a different county.  This tradition happened accidentally for us when we found ourselves in London accompanying our daughter, who was going to be a cheerleader in the London New Year’s Day parade.  When we were making the plans for this trip, we knew that we were going to be out of the country for New Year’s Eve, but we did not expect to be so positively affected by the experience. 

My Daughter in the 2011
 New Year's Day Parade in London.
So, that New Year’s Eve we were already tucked into our hotel room, as my son was only 8 years old, and just at the stroke of midnight, we looked out our hotel room window and there was an amazing fireworks display over the Thames River.  The kids were so excited!  New Year’s Eve had never reached fireworks level back home, in fact, it had never reached any level of excitement.  It was at that exact moment that I said to my husband and kids, “Wouldn’t it be great if we were in a different country every New Year’s Eve?”  It was an immediate and unanimous, YES! 

Jumping for Joy Near the Tower Bridge
on New Year's Day 2011 .  

As soon as we returned from London, we scoured the Internet for our next destination.  It took us less than a month to choose a location and make our reservations. We were going to Italy for our next New Year’s Eve abroad!  Booking the trip immediately had solidified our goal of making this an annual tradition. 


My kids playing around in the Piazza Santa Maria Novella
 in Florence on New Year's Eve.
New Year's Day 2012 in Front of the Ponte Vecchio
in Florence. My son trying to steal the scene. 

You would think that traveling during the holidays would mean extra crowds, long lines, and that places would be closed.  Not true at all.  Most people do not travel during the holidays, so there are shorter lines everywhere and fewer people overall.  That was a another pivotal reason we decided to start this tradition.

New Year's Eve in Front of the Eiffel Tower
New Year's Day 2013 in Disneyland Paris.
While visiting a country each year, we plan our sightseeing for the trip based on what will be closed on New Year's.  We were pleasantly surprised that so many things are OPEN on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.  Some things do close a little early on New Year's Eve, but more likely than not, we would have dinner reservations anyway.  With a little bit of forethought and careful planning, we are always able to plan exciting things to do and hit all of the must-see locations.  

On our last trip abroad for New Year's we were in Amsterdam, and we visited the Anne Frank House on New Year's Eve.  We booked our tour time for 3:15 PM, and the last tour of the day was 4:00. I had done some research in advance and purchased the tickets online so that there was no last minute hassle or stress waiting on line, and THE LINE IS LONG.  Blocks longs.  Advance ticket purchasing gets you in the side door at your reservation time! 

New Year's Eve in front of the
Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.


New Year's Day was full of fun, too. We visited the Van Gogh Museum with tickets purchased in advance.  Once again, we walked straight to the front of the line. These are the times my family realizes how great I am at planning.  After the museum, we took pictures next to the larger than life sized letters outside the Rijksmuseum  that spell IAMSTERDAM.  Coincidentally, my kids' initials are R and D, so it made for a great photo opportunity.  



At the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam on 
New Year's Day 2014. My son is standing in 
front Van Gogh's Sunflowers Painting. 

My kids in front of the IMASTERDAM letters. 

The only thing we didn't plan in advance last New Year's Day in Amsterdam was the canal boat ride. When checking the schedules, it seemed like there was always going to be an availability. After all, it is a city of canals, so we were confident that we would find a tour. 

My daughter on the canal boat ride sporting
the Amsterdam winter hat that seemed
to be all the rage last year!
We had always planned on taking the kids abroad to experience different countries and their cultures, and we had finally found a time of the year that was not only festive, but it worked for everyone’s work and school schedule. Now, when we are on our long plane ride home, we start to discuss where we will be heading next New Year's Eve.  This is a tradition we hope to continue for a very long time, not only with our kids, but with their families, too, when they get older.  

This New Year's Eve we will be in Austria!  We will keep you posted about our Experienced Time!