When I was in 3rd grade, I met this girl named Zoe. She lived in my neighborhood and we rode the bus together to school. We sat in the same class, and would be classmates through elementary school, middle school, and even high school. Little did I know she would become one of my closest lifelong friends, and someone I'd be celebrating my birthday with the rest of our lives!
I was born on Aug 27 and Zoe was born on Aug 29 (albeit 1 year and 2 days later). Since she spent her early years in California which has a later cut off date, we ended up in the same grade. We're both oldest children with sisters the same age, took piano lessons from the same teacher, and have a mutual love of eating. However, Zoe is a way smarter, triathlon conquerer version of me. She and her boyfriend, Lyubo, both went to Stanford for undergrad and are both pursuing their PhD's in Atomic Physics and Mathematics respectively at MIT.
Even though we've lived in separate states ever since we graduated high school, the stars aligned and we still get together to celebrate our birthdays together every year. We're now 7 years strong, celebrating in Carmel, Bloomington, Chicago, and now the second time in Boston, this time with the added adventure to Maine and with our men in tow.
This year, we decided to celebrate over Labor Day. We spent the day on Friday working out of Steven's hotel overlooking the wharf before joining Zoe and Lyubo. Steven has never been to Boston, so we kicked off the trip with all the Boston sights - Quincy Market, Freedom Trail, Newbury St and a delicious lunch in the North End. Zoe recommended an amazing Sicilian style restaurant called The Daily Catch. It's a cash only local eatery, with a long line out the door any day of the week. We waited an hour to get a table, but it was so worth it! We got the calamari and signature squid ink pasta - it was heavenly, but probably not worth the unexpectedly long wait. To sweeten the deal, we went to Mike's Pastry for the infamous cannoli's. I had a chocolate covered "lobster ball" which was a giant cream puff. Emphasis on the word, giant.
In the evening, we visited Harvard and then MIT to see Zoe's lab work in action. Her field is atomic physics, specifically observing the behavior of molecules in ultra cold temperatures. The applications of her work are next level amazing, and I couldn't have been more impressed. We also heard about Lyubo's work studying topology and measuring the surface of shapes. The life of a graduate student is absolutely fascinating to a working girl like me!
For dinner, we tried to go to The Salty Pig, but the wait was 1.5 hours (Boston restaurants are popular, man)! Instead, the hosts recommended their sister restaurant down the street called Coda Kitchen & Bar. Phenomenal! The four of us ordered matching burgers, which were scrumptious.
On Saturday, we set sail (in our Ford) at the break of dawn and drove 5 hours to Acadia National Park. We stopped by Harvest Moon Deli, where I had the "Jefferson Airplane," a sandwich with pesto mayo, turkey, and may have been one of the best sandwiches of my life.
After quite a bit of winding around the park, we finally found the Cadillac Mountain South Ridge Trail, an easy leisurely hike. We also looped around Sand Beach and did a nice 4 miles long walk through Thunder Hole and beautiful beachside. Next...the moment we've all been waiting for in Maine. LOBSTER!
Hordes of cars gathered outside Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound, where they have massive stoves to boil the lobster fresh in front of you. Steven and I shared a delicious meal of a lobster salad sandwich, a bowl of clam chowder, and a fresh soft shell lobster. Incredible!!! Definitely one of the highlights from the trip. The place was packed, and definitely affordable for lobster compared to the Midwest! With tummies happy and hearts full, we stayed at the Courtyard Portland Airport for the night.
On Sunday morning, we drove 3 hours to Portland, ME to begin what would become a food tour day given the rain ushering us indoors. We had breakfast at Dutch's Breakfast & Lunch, a surprisingly good diner. The lox bagel sandwich and biscuits & gravy plate featured amazing square "crispy hash browns" that were divine.
The delicious bakery smells of The Standard Baking Co. lured us in where I had a "morning bun with walnuts." Thrillist recommended we try the honeycomb soft serve covered in a chocolate shell at The Honey Paw, so we went there next. Steven had an awesome beer and Zoe had a delicious "blueberry custard bao." Incredible creativity & taste all around.
I promise we didn't just eat -- we did walk around too! We took a peaceful stroll around the Eastern Promenade and finished off our time in Portland with one last food stop at The Holy Donut (thanks for braving the rain, Zoe!) for unbelievable potato based donuts. Best donuts I have EVER had! The maple bacon = best snack ever as we drove back home to Boston.
We finished off our trip strolling through sprinkling rain on Newbury St. to Chinatown for a hole in the wall ramen experience at Sakura Sunakku. So good and filling!! A trip to Chinatown wouldn't be complete without milk tea, so we had a class drink from Chatime as well. Thankful for this wonderful weekend away with friends! We also had a communal 3D pen printing session at Zoe's house creating amazing creations like a pineapple, pineapple box (aka Steven's failed house), and more.
It's hard to fathom the ways in which my life would be different without having met Zoe. Thankfully, I don't have to think about that because we have decades of friendship behind us and a lifetime ahead! <3 Thank you for being incredible hosts, Zoe & Lyubo!
July 10-16, 2017
Before this trip, I always imagined Dubai as an opulent city bumping with business and visitors from afar. It was this and so much more. Upon arriving in Dubai, the feeling of being foreign permeated every fiber of my being. Arabic letters dotted all the signs and taxis are the norm given the 110 degree heat in the summertime (sweltering steam room style).
I had the unforgettable opportunity to travel to Dubai for a work trip. My client had an international digital conference and they invited myself and my Account Executive, Dave, to attend. The trip served as the catalyst for many firsts: first time in the Middle East and first time flying Emirates Airlines.
The experience on Emirates? Absolutely wonderful. The airline attendants are extremely kind and helpful. We received adorable overnight bags with socks, toothbrushes, and eye masks for sleeping comfort. Bright neon stickers that said "Wake me up for food" also came included so you wouldn't miss a meal. For the children on board, they offered coloring books and Polaroid photos of the flight to remember their flight experience. Stunning service! It made the 14 hour long flight feel like a breeze.
Dubai is primarily ex-pats, with less than 10% of the population originally from the UAE. In the elevator and on the streets, we met people from India, Pakistan, Iran, and more. Business draws people to the city, and the relatively large amount of tourism compared to the surrounding cities. It's the home of the world's only 7-star hotel, the Burj Al Arab. It's also very safe! I would definitely recommend visiting between the months of October and May though, unless you're looking for extreme weight loss via sweating.
We stayed at the fantastic Hyatt Place Dubai Al Rigga, located in the heart of the old city. I have to rave about the beds, because every time I sunk inside it, I never wanted to leave! So comfortable. Craving some local flavors, Dave and I took the hotel's recommendation to eat at Al Safadi, which features authentic Lebanese food.
I actually think this was my absolute favorite meal of the whole trip! Their hummus with pine nuts, fluffy bread, and delicious fish & rice dish were phenomenal. You can find really great value for food in the old city of Dubai, which is less touristy and on the outskirts of the popular Palm Jumeirah region.
For the next few days, we had the conference all day. Our client graciously accepted us as their own and let us join them for fun activities like visiting the massive Dubai Mall for their famous Fountain Show and an evening yacht ride to the gorgeous Dubai Marina to see the skyline lit up at night. Absolutely unforgettable. We even danced the night away together at an English pub called Nell Gwynne.
After the whirlwind of a conference, we had the last day to explore and enjoy the city. The Spice Souks located in Deira are situated in brightly colored alleyways. Not to be caught into the tourist trap of paying too much before bargaining, Dave and I were on guard! Spices lined the walls and doors, alluring and full of mysterious smells. One of my favorite memories is when a shopkeeper ground up menthol and added boiling water. It evaporated into a trailing steam that he blew into our faces. Coughing ensued as we rapidly blinked our eyes in surprise. As we inhaled, the menthol cleared our senses! Everything was eye opening and fun. Dave purchased cute toys for his baby daughter and I bought Arabic themed balloon pants, spices, and menthol for home.
After 2 hours in the market, we took a taxi to the Palm Jumeirah, an artificial archipelago constructed in the shape of a palm. The Atlantis in Dubai is sprawling, and quite exclusive. We walked around to find a place for dinner and could only get access to the very public areas of the hotel. Ironically, we ended up at Bread Street Kitchen & Bar, a Gordon Ramsay restaurant. Twas delicious, casual, but modern. They even had an ice cream bar we indulged in for dessert.
The next morning, we woke up early, ready to fly back to the States. Emirates had an IT issue where they had overbooked the plane. I had a seat, but there was technically no seat left for Dave. To compensate, Emirates offered Dave a free night in a 5-star hotel, all meals included, and a free roundtrip flight to Dubai to book anytime in the next year just for taking tomorrow's flight at the same time. To an ordinary person, this is a fantastic compensation. However, Dave has a young baby at home and desperately needed to get back, so I bit the bullet. It wasn't so hard to chew for me, and Steven was able to work from Chicago the following week so it all worked out!
As a result, I waved Dave good-bye as he embarked on the flight back to Chicago and I waited for my luggage to come back so I could go rest at the Roda Al Bustan Hotel. Emirates offered their business class chauffeur to the hotel and once I arrived, they served me Spanish wine while I waited to check in (wow).
It had been a long week, so I spent my next 24 hours mainly resting at the hotel and eating 3 delicious meals in the hotel restaurant buffet. Something interesting is that in Europe and Asia, hotel restaurants are a big deal. In America, most people tend to avoid hotel restaurants. My personal perception is that it's not particularly delicious food and it tends to be pricier. However, on the other side of the world, it's common to have 3+ restaurants in one hotel as the restaurant themselves are destinations. It's fascinating!
All in all, a fabulous trip to Dubai! I feel very blessed to have a roundtrip ticket to go back again, and hopefully explore more of the Middle East. Will definitely be returning in the Oct-May months so I can explore the desert and ride a camel next time (goals)!
Jasper National Park
July 4-6, 2017
After visiting Banff, we headed north to Jasper National Park. Wild animals like cow elk, aggressive momma bears with their young (stayed a safe distance away) and mountain goats roamed freely. Never have I ever experienced so much wildlife and been *so* up close. Our goal the entire trip was to see a bear (from a distance), so check that off the bucket list!
We set up camp at Whistler's Campground, where tons of cow elk meandered at a gentle pace. Of course I had to take a selfie!
My favorite part of our entire trip came next: hiking Mt. Edith Cavell. An "aggressive grizzly bear with her cub" caused the park to close off the famous meadows trail, so we ended up walking the glacier trail and off-roading a little bit! White glaciers grazed the mountain tops and floated in the lake. Amazing that on a summer day, we got to step on ice. Twas stunning.
Our day continued with a hike through Maligne Canyon to see the five bridges. Quite the workout avoiding mosquitos and also hiking multiple uphill sections. At the end, we took the road less traveled back and discovered a magnificent overpass looking over the woods. Needless to say, we commenced a photoshoot.
For the rest of the day, we relaxed in downtown Jasper. Ice cream called our names and led us to one of the only ice cream places in town: Grandma's Convenience Store. There's not much local ice cream in the area, but how can you go wrong with a store that serves Nestle? We stopped by Jasper Brewing Company for some good brews. After a long day of hiking and exploring, this was exactly what we needed!
An amazing twist to this vacation was the fact that my friend from high school, Annie, had been journeying with her family through Banff and Jasper as well! We had no idea we'd be in Canada at the same time until we got there. Each day, we played a game of tag, trying to meet up. On our last night, we met up at Kimchi House for dinner together. At laaaast! :D Good comfort food and reunion with old friends.
Steven and I said sad good-byes to our dear friends that night and slept in the car before taking off in the morning! We hit up Athabasca Falls on the way back to Calgary - roaring waterfalls at the crack of dawn.
It was so sweet to spend a full week with Elle, Alex, Dasha, and Sal (and see Annie). Special thanks to Dasha & Sal for reserving the campsites so far in advance and everyone for the amazing company that made this trip unforgettable. Cheers to many more trips & fun!
If you missed Calgary and Banff, check them out below!
Elle, Dasha, and I have been eagerly planning our Banff trip since 2016 (and stringing along our significant others along for the ride) ;). As Ann Arbor besties, we knew we had to get together and continue traveling the world together after Dasha moved to San Francisco and I moved to Chicago!
Dasha & Sal are hard core camping veterans, while the rest of us are aspiring campers at best. With our rental cooler and camping gear in tow, we drove to Two Jack Lakeside Campground in Banff. With a reflective lake that showcased the majestic mountains behind, we instantly fell in love with our gorgeous campground.
On our first day, we had a few failed trips to the Banff Upper Hot Springs and Banff Gondola. The Gondola cost an exorbitant amount to squish ~30 people into one gondola, and the wait was over an hour! We said no. The Hot Springs were more of a pool at best, with tons of hot bodies on a hot day. We also declined.
I can't lie - in the nights, Steven and I woke up and shivered on the hard ground. Without a real mattress of any time or gear for the cold nights, it was a bit brutal! Elle, Alex, Steven and I ended up purchasing a basic air cushion and pillows to sleep on and piling on every article of long sleeves on our bodies at night from Atmosphere Banff (life saver) and enjoying an amazing raspberry chocolate drink from Second Cup.
We had a whirlwind of a day hiking through Johnston Canyon and walking by Lake Louise, where they charged $115 for 30 minutes to canoe (egad)! Snapping photos sufficed for us :) Moraine Lake wowed with its brilliant turquoise hues. At night, we settled at Lake Louise Campground and enjoyed a night of s'mores - the best.
Stay tuned for the continuation of our Jeep Grand Cherokee's adventure to Jasper National Park!
Missed our celebration in Calgary for the 150th Canada Day? Fear not!
Canada Day in Calgary
July 1, 2017
When Steven and I planned to go to Banff and Jasper National Park with our friends: Dasha, Sal, Elle and Alex, we had no idea our flights would coincide on Canada Day - and the special 150th one at that!
To get to Banff, you must fly to Calgary. Since Steven and I arrived a day early on June 30, we got to enjoy the entirety of Canada Day as faux Canadians. Whereas July 4th in the US tends to be gatherings of friends at houses for BBQ's or lake houses, Canada Day is very communal. There are parades and festivities across the entire country of Canada, and tons of red and white worn by all. Waving free Canada flags and donning Canadian pins helped us blend in :)
We started our morning at Prince's Island Park, a very cute park filled with families and a large CANADA 150 sign. The park connected to Chinatown, which had so many people! Canada is incredibly diverse, which I really enjoy.
The smells of Chinese food lured us into Great Taste Chinese Restaurant. Great taste confirmed. Super authentic menu where we enjoyed eggplant with garlic and pork strips as well as a Shanghai noodle dish - wonderful! I dragged Steven to bubble tea next at O'Cup. They only take cash (normal), had great flavors (awesome), but the drinks literally tasted like sugar and powder. I can't speak for the smoothies, but the milk teas were good only with copious amounts of ice. So sad!
It wouldn't be Canada Day unless we immersed ourselves in a bit of Canada's history. Since it's Canada's 150th birthday, all the museums, parks, and most tourist sights were free! As the lady who let us into Fort Calgary museum winked at us and said: "The price is right."
Fort Calgary is the original birthplace of Calgary. We learned about how the Canadians took control of the land from its indigenous ancestors. It's always interesting to step back and time and see what life was like back in the day as well as the similarities to their American neighbors to the south.
Who doesn't love music? Our next stop: Studio Bell. As the National Music Center, it lacked no shortage of interactive displays, live music, and ways to make your own music. What I loved even more was Steven's decision to indulge to a $7 lemonade from the Family Squeezed Lemonade truck. $7?! I know what you're thinking - I thought it too.
It's 32 oz of made to order lemonade featuring fresh fruit and herbs like mint, raspberry, and more. Actually so refreshing :) With a motto like "When life gives you cousins, make lemonade," how could you go wrong?
As the day warmed up, we accidentally coincided with heading downtown to the busy parts of town like the Olympic Plaza. Live bands and people dressed up for cosplay conferences lined the streets.
With the arrival of Sal & Dasha, we headed to Naina's Kitchen for the most amazing stuffed burgers and poutine of all time!! Steven and I shared a pulled pork with apples stuffed burger and chicken buffalo poutine. Phenomenal for both weight gain and taste.
Fireworks shot into the sky to conclude our epic Canada Day. I can't imagine a better one until the 200th Canada Day! Maybe we'll be back for that one :)
Stay tuned for adventures in Banff & Jasper National Parks next!
June 23-25, 2017
For me & Steven's 1st wedding anniversary, we wanted to get away and do something special. We decided to celebrate by circling back to visit the state where we attended our first non-Midwestern friends wedding together.
Hunter & Meredith tied the knot in Jacksonville, FL two years ago. It was a very warm weekend in the middle of the scorching Floridian summer. Reminiscing makes me so grateful for the memories we shared along the ocean front and for my first time meeting these new friends!
Our adventures began on Friday night, when they picked us up from the airport and drove us to their place. Palm trees swayed back and forth in the breeze, greeting us as if to say hello.
We called it an early night in preparation for a full next day! The morning beckoned us awake with the smell of Hunter's homemade blueberry muffins (delicious!) and scrambled eggs with cinnamon (not bad)! Stellar breakfast.
Deep under the surface of the earth, a vast layer of aquifers line the foundation of Florida. Rain water slowly trickles down piles of rock until it distills into a pure filtered water - it's amazing. You can go float down a multitude of beautiful springs in Orlando, so we embarked on an adventure to find them.
Apparently 9am is not early enough to grab a spot at the most popular springs as they restrict the number of visitors to preserve the natural springs. The normal float rental area was closed, so we rushed to Dollar General to buy the cheapest inner tubes of all time ($3 each) for me & Steven. Pretty cool purchase though - they are monster truck tires ;)
After 2 failed full springs, we landed at Wekiwwa Springs State Park. Such relaxation, floating on our inner tubes in that beautiful spring, has never found us in Chicago :) We decided to go rogue and bypass the non-springs area, only to find out we can go canoeing further down the river! Done.
During our river canoeing trip, we ran into all sorts of sea creatures craning their heads to the skies to enjoy the sun. Otters. Sea turtles. Even a gator :O For dinner, we enjoyed Hawkers Asian Street Fare, which we also had when we visited Jacksonville. Delicious!
Our night landed us at Orlando Brewing Company. It's one of the only organic breweries in the nation. I couldn't taste a difference, but perhaps my taste palette is not that refined.
From the outside, it looks like a very plain generic warehouse. It's thrumming with life on the inside. They offer free tours of their brewery every day at 6pm - very cool to see all the hops, water, and grains cooking their way into beer form.
We ended the night as the ultimate tourists, visiting Disney Springs to see Downtown Disney. Disney has captured my imagination every since my youth. I told everyone I even felt happier as we approached the happiest place on earth - their marketing is amazing.
Ghiradelli samples, live music shows, and squealing children surrounded us as we watched the sun set on our last full day in Orlando.
We attended church in the morning with them at Grace Oviedo and then had lunch at Keke's Breakfast Cafe. Really delicious. Our very bubbly waitress made our experience memorable. She forgot the steak in Steven and Hunter's omelettes, so both their food was free - awesome!
My favorite part of the whole trip - spontaneously deciding to attend open houses in Winter Park, a high end and pricey part of town. We saw three $1M open houses and I absolutely fell in love with one of them. Open houses = dangerous.
With one last stop at Rome's Flavours for gelato, we wrapped up a wonderfully beautiful weekend in Orlando and reunion with friends. Grateful to have spent the weekend together and seen each other once a year since 2015!
Happy 1 year, my dear husband and love of my life! Cheers to many more :)
May 5-11, 2017
VIva Puerto Rico!! I can't express how much of a blast it was to visit Puerto Rico with Steven's family. Now that his parents are older and his sister lives in Taiwan, they have an annual vacation to a new place every year. We stayed at the lovely San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino. Spending the week with Steven's family on vacation taught me a lot about the importance of family, generosity, and perseverance.
Family: Year after year, they intentionally plan a full week together as one of them lives abroad and it's the only time everyone is together. How special to have these memories around the world each year.
Generosity: they shower each other with so much to selflessly make the trip best for each person. Since Steven and I are leaving a day early and we're going to miss the bioluminescent kayak tour, his sister set up another tour just for us as the rest of the family patiently waited 2 hours in the car in the harbor.
Perseverance: Steven's parents are in their 60's and WOW are they determined and persevere. We climbed the steep Mt. Britton in the Yunque National Forest, a stunning 3,300 ft tall mountain with winding curves in *the pouring rain.* I literally wanted to give up a thousand times and call it quits but they were able to keep going. This happened throughout the whole trip as we wandered for hours along the island. Kudos to them and what an example for when we are old one day!
Highlights of places we ate: Casita Miramar - delicious mofongo Pinky's - unbelievable value for breakfast! Huge portions and delicious smoothies. Café Manolin - very casual eatery with really authentic food Zaco's Tacos - solid tacos on the island of Culebra Calizo Seafood - favorite meal! Delicious sangria & mofongo on the island of Viequez.
Places we visited: Bioluminescent Bay - tiny organisms in the bay of Fajardo glow upon contact, but make sure you visit when it's not a full moon and very dark outside! La Mina Falls - gorgeous waterfalls in the Yunque rainforest All I can say is, amazing, and thank you God for such wonderful creation to enjoy as well as such a wonderful blessing of family to enjoy it with! Island of Viequez - known for its gorgeous beaches and golf carting around the island. Culebra - another island of Puerto Rico best known for its famous Flamenco Beach (such a stunner). Old San Juan - a photogenic stunner with its colorful pastel walls and open fields. I loved it! Check out Paseo de la Princesa while you're there!
Great place to visit - it has a little something for everyone! Even better? They're part of the USA so no need to worry about currency, language, passport! Highly recommend, and thankful for this wonderful trip where we got to enjoy God's creation together with family.
March 8-12, 2017
The recent London attack is definitely a sad occurence after having such a wonderful and thankfully safe trip to the city :( Reading the news has been heart-breaking...it's only through prayer that we remain hopeful for what the future holds!
Our journey to London turned out to be harder than we thought! Perhaps it's a result of Brexit, but traveling from Belgium to London via train turned out to be as complex as traveling through the airport. We missed our train because we arrived 15 minutes before departure time. Eurostar is extremely strict about closing the gate 30 minutes before departure. We had no idea! (I guess it did have a warning on the ticket...ah well)! Luckily, it wasn't too long of a wait before we got to head out on the next train.
We arrived to Marylebone in the evening, our home in London for the next few days. For dinner, we visited the Spaghetti House. Twas family owned and full of an authentic Italian spirit, hearty portions and absolutely delicious. We couldn't finish the massive spaghetti for 2 we ordered, which meant we got to enjoy it one more day ;)
On our first full day in the city, we just had to redeem our letters to Hogwarts and enter Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross!! Magical wizards from all over the world lined up for the chance to don a house scarf and pose (with great enthusiasm) by the shopping cart and brick wall. Worth every minute of the wait :D
One of my old co-workers, Meg, recently moved to London to work at the Google office there. We stopped by the office for lunch to visit her and boy do I have office envy! It's massive and beautiful, with its own Youtube merchandise store on the ground floor. So very cool! It was the best time laughing with Meg and catching up on her exciting European ex-pat life. Many of the people who work at the London office are not British - it's very much a melting pot of people from all over the world.
Our next stop: the British Museum. The architecture is vast, spacious, and full of interesting exhibits. There's even one displayed currently about The American Dream. Definitely one of the highlights of the trip! We then took a coffee break at the extremely popular and crowded Monmouth Coffee for a quick afternoon pick me up.
The London black cabs are famous for their boxy shape zooming through the streets. We used Gett, their taxi ride app service to get around the city as it's SO spread out and our feet could only walk so much. Pro tip: using Google Maps, we found a promo code for £5 off our next 10 rides - #winning!
We felt as though we couldn't leave London without visiting a pub, so we took a trip to the historic Blackfriar pub for dinner. It's not known for their food, and I think we ordered the wrong drinks. I didn't love my fruity cider or Steven's gluten-free beer, but then again, why did we order those drinks in London (haha). I'd recommend a visit for the atmosphere, but the food is a pass for next time :)
To end the first full day in London, we took a romantic walk down the Tower Bridge at night. It took us a while to figure out how to get there and I complained of achey feet, but Steven's persistence got us there. Once I took in the view, I had absolutely zero regrets. Thanks, hon!
I've found that traveling is one of the best ways to learn about each other in marriage. A lot of things don't go to plan and you're tested at a physical, emotional, and even linguistic level. I've found that I love Steven more and more because he sees my needs oftentimes because I realize them myself and it makes us grow even closer.
On our second full day, we leapt out of bed in anticipation of watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace!! Crowds of people lined each side of the street and by the sculptures lining the palace. Unfortunately, it had rained earlier in the day so they decided not to bring out the royal orchestra to play for the usual fanfare. Sigh. It was a little anticlimactic, but provides another thing to do the next time we find ourselves in London!
Instead, we visited the many shops and street vendors of Camden Market. To peruse every single shop would have taken a full day! A parade of food trucks lined the square and we definitely had to exercise self-control to keep from wanting to sample everything.
We did visit Chin Chin Labs, a nitro ice-cream shop that makes ice cream to order. Our ice cream flavor was called "Pineapple ice cream w/ Chocolate Black Rice," inside a "Brownwich" (2 brownie cookies). The verdict: amazing, would eat again in a heartbeat.
A crazy thing happened while we were walking out of the market. A group of school kids were squeezing past us on the bridge when a black clad man barreled past us through the crowd, into the throng of food trucks. A police officer yelling into his radio followed in hot pursuit. It was a wild chase, something that felt straight out of the movies. It seemed like a robbery since the man in black seemed to be sheltering something in his coat.
We wandered back into downtown London's Covent Garden, a trendy shopping district. While playing in the Apple store, we found a phenomenal Groupon for afternoon tea at the Academy Hotel! Normally priced at £21.95/person, we got to enjoy a lovely platter of sandwiches, scones, biscuits, desserts, and tea for £21 in total! We really lucked out, because normally they end afternoon tea at 4pm, but they extended it just for us and we got the whole tea room to ourselves. Oh the bliss!
On the way to the Tate Modern, we even got to share one of our leftover biscuits with a homeless man on a bridge. For some reason, this small act is one of the most memorable times from our vacation.
The Tate Modern = trippy and very avant-garde. I liked recognizing pieces like "The Urinal" by Duchamp, which is also featured at IU's Art Museum. Before wrapping up for the night, we stopped by The Larrik for the most satisfying pale ale and fries with aioli. Another day well done! Loved The Larrik!
On our last morning, we strolled around Daunt Books before our breakfast place opened. I haven't been to a bookstore in a long time, and we shared a few chuckles reading about things British people love to say, do, and tweet.
Our lovely breakfast at La Fromagerie felt like a visit to the local dairy and bread store. All their ingredients are so fresh, probably helped by the fact that they're also a sweet little market. Steven had the Bacon Sandwich and I had the Haas Avocado on Toasted Sourdough with pancetta & ricotta on top. Divine! One of my favorite meals of the trip.
A Gett car took us to Trafalgar Square where we hung out at the National Portrait Gallery. I really enjoyed it because unlike other historical art museums, each of these portraits really seemed to capture the personality of the subject...more like a photograph! For our last meal in London, we had supremely delicious pizza at PizzaNativa. We shared and loved their Salamino pizza <3.
We left extra early to prepare for our first EasyJet experience back to Amsterdam. Surprisingly, it was super easy and nice! Once we arrived at the Amsterdam Courtyard Marriott, we were so happy to relax. Due to Steven's elite status with Marriott, we somehow got upgraded to the penthouse suite! Say what?! It is only times like these that make me think being married to a consultant is an okay life.
They had 2 rain shower heads, a balcony, and an enormous water jet bath tub. Seriously the best accommodation to end our trip. So thankful for God's goodness. Small twist: the bathtub actually made screaming noises every two minutes for the next 15 minutes after we finished using it, which scared the heebie jeebies out of me. Just a small bump in the grand scheme of a restful night.
Au revoir, London. Until next time, Europe! :) If you enjoyed reading this post, check out the rest of our Euro trip below!
On our last morning in Ghent, we strolled along the St Michael's Bridge to admire the city one last time. We rode the train a half hour to arrive at our next Belgium destination: Bruges. It's romantic, more touristy, and had awesome food as well.
We checked into the B&B In Bruges, a simple and homey B&B located in the heart of the city. Our very first stop? Chez Albert for the very best (and first) Belgian waffles of my life, slightly glazed and covered in dark chocolate. Oh my gosh, delightful. They were so good we ended up visiting again for breakfast the next day.
For lunch, we had some "fast (Belgian) food" at Chez Vincent, another family owned eatery. We tried the famous bitterballen (fried gravy balls), Belgian fries, and more beef stew.
There are a few windmills remaining on the outskirts of the city. We decided to visit them because why not! It felt very Dutch, similar to Windmill Island from when I visited Holland, MI. Nice little departure from the city center.
We visited Breydel de Coninc for dinner to enjoy amazing mussels and the best fish stew I've ever had! It was a cheesy potato fish stew with two different types of fish. Amazing! Even better was the flaming creme brulee we had for dessert to close out our trip to Bruges.
On day 2 of Bruges, we headed back to the train station to return to Ghent, where we took a train to Brussels and then a flight to London! Heightened security measures patrolled every section of the train station. A little bit scary, but reassuring to see them there after the recent attack in Germany.
After eating so much beef stew, we detoxed with a lunch at Greenway, which was fantastic! My love for vegetarian restaurants has been growing lately with how creative and surprisingly yummy & filling their food is. We also purchased a bunch of gift chocolates for our family and co-workers from Yuzu, an ironically Japanese inspired chocolatier.
We woke up at 5am in Amsterdam to catch the train to Ghent, snacking on Stroopwafel during our ride. I wish we had more trains in the US. They're the best mode of transportation - so scenic and fun!
Our Airbnb, a stylish rooftop apartment, also wow-ed. It was beautiful, spacious, and the loveliest home we could have imagined for our stay in Ghent!
We stopped by Bakkerij Benny & Ingrid down the street for a breakfast of quiche, a crossaint, and coffee. It's owned and managed by a husband, wife, and daughter, who are simply the most welcoming people. A elderly woman walked in after us and waved as we smiled at each other. She came over to us and though she was clearly Flemish, spoke in perfect English to welcome us to the bakery. She animatedly told us the people who own it are very nice and wished us a good trip. This set the tone for our trip to Ghent :) Everyone exuded kindness and we adored our time here.
Our first sight-seeing adventure was visiting the Gravensteen Castle. As we attempted to take a selfie in front of the castle, a nice passerby asked if she could help us and offered to take our photo in addition to telling us the castle was a wonderful choice. Belgians are the best! <3
As we entered the castle, an enthusiastic teacher leading a field trip of young children dressed in medieval garb excitedly chattered in Dutch about the legends of the castle. How could you not love this city?!
The castle included ~15 different stops that varied from the dungeon to the rooftop, tight winding staircases to torture rooms, and grand fireplaces. Each room was a surprise, and the sheer size of the castle was pretty amazing. I honestly enjoyed it SO much!
The fun continued with a visit to the 91-meter tall Belfry of Ghent! It's only €2.70 to visit if you're under the age of 26 (whew, just made it). We climbed 300+ stairs, huffing and puffing to reach the top. Every 50-75 stairs, they had a museum displaying the mechanics of the bells, interesting dragon displays, and more. The views were INCREDIBLE! They reminded me of the views from Berliner Dom during my time in Berlin (2014 and 2015).
One of the best parts of visiting Ghent (can you tell it was my favorite destination of our trip?) was being able to feel like a local. I felt transported back to a medieval era in this small lovely town with the nicest people.
St Bavo's Cathedral also impressed with its spacious Gothic architecture. It features gilded wood and marble alongside a painting by Rubens and the world-famous Ghent Altarpiece painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck around 1432.
Last fall, Steven and I started planning this spring vacation. We found an amazing flight to Amsterdam and started dreaming about where we could go. Eventually, we landed on Amsterdam, Ghent & Bruges in Belgium, and London -- all new destinations for both of us!
The Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam (AMS) is one of the largest, boasting a taxi time of up to 30 minutes! Definitely the case for us as well. We stayed at the simple ITC Hotel, which had teeny tiny rooms, but boasted a wonderful location in the lovely Prisengracht neighborhood.
Feeling a wee bit hungry after our long flight, we cleaned up at the hotel and ventured to Foodhallen, a vast and diverse food hall, filled with worldwide cuisine. We split a Turkish kebab, crab noodle soup, popcorn chicken and Belgian fries. Very hipster and modern stores filled the rest of the building, like The Maker Store. Way cool!
We posed for touristy photos in front of the I amsterdam letters located at the back of the Rijksmuseum. So many people! A South Korean rally shouted in front of the sign protesting the corruption of the old president. Overall a really cool area of the city with a lot of green space.
To rest our weary feet, we found up at CT coffee and coconuts. It blew away my expectations! I thought it would be a tiny café but it turned out to be a three-story absolutely packed amazing café themed restaurant with the coolest ambience ever! We sat in the corner on the third floor on beanbags enjoyed a latte with delicious blueberry coconut pancakes. Highly recommend! Our dinner at O MAI Vietnamese didn't disappoint either.
Day 2: much more rested and ready to explore the city! We seized the day with a fantastic brunch at Metropolitain en route to the Red Light District's Oude Kerk to begin our FreeDam Walking Tour (PHENOMENAL)! Our tour group consisted of 18 people from all over the world - Argentina, Switzerland, Austria, and more. Really cool to meet so many people from all over the world gathered in this one tour.
Our tour guide was incredible. Highly engaging and knowledgeable. I have a special spot in my heart for awesome tours from my tour guide days at IU :'). We probably wouldn't have visited the Red Light District without this tour, and we learned so much history about its importance to the city of Amsterdam.
Ex pats who relocate to the Netherlands are called "UnDutchables," like our tour guide, who originally came from Florida. Amsterdam is known for its tolerance towards all things that will bolster the economy of the city. That includes a tolerance for the use of marijuana, even though it's not *technically* legal (gasp - who knew?). Prostitution is legal as well, but for an even more interesting reason.
Back in the day, Amsterdam served as an important port city for sailors. These sailors, after being at sea for years at a time, were looking for 2 things when back from sea: booze & babes. If they didn't get these things, they went inland and pillaged the villages. To help prevent this, they legalized prostitution to keep the sailors *literally* at bay. It's very legitimate there - in that it's seen as another profession that pays taxes and each person is registered with the government. In addition, the sex workers are protected by police and have panic buttons in each room. It's a very different way of thinking there, and centered around the Dutch idea of tolerance as long as it's good for business.
In addition, you have to be very careful in Amsterdam to distinguish between "coffee shops" and "cafes." Cafes are what we think they are - places to eat and drink coffee. "Coffee shops" are places to smoke marijuana and that's all you'll find on the menu.
Stroopwafel is the specialty treat there - syrup waffles. We found the best stroopwafels of all time at Banketbakkerij Lanskroon. The syrup is best when heated over a cup of tea or coffee, and also found on United Airlines flights that depart before 9am ;)
The Bloemenmarkt is Amsterdam's tulip hub. From wooden shoes to wooden tulips, they have all the expected flowery grandeur you'd expect in the Netherlands. Lots of bulbs for any future flower garden needs you may have. It rained off and on throughout the day - definitely bring an umbrella with you if you plan on visiting in March!
We ended the day at Venus & Adonis, our nice dinner of our time in the city. It seemed to be full only of couples, so I guess it's a great date spot! We had steak, beef satay, and a massive baked potato with aioli sour cream to share. It was a little pricey in my opinion, but definitely delicious!
Lastly, we went on a Lovers Canal Cruise at night to enjoy the city. Loved the views at night as we sailed past the many house boats on the canal. Many people live on the boats and as we peered inside, many were as spacious as actual houses! I can't imagine living in a boat, but kudos to the many who do.
Amsterdam was an eye-opening experience to say the least, and I have to thank the FreeDam tours for providing the story of the city's rich history.
Second stop: Ghent, Belgium! (coming to the blog soon)
Visiting Austin has been near the top of my travel list for a long time now. I've never been to Texas, and what could be better than visiting a wonderfully warm place in the middle of Chicago winter?
Every year, my team has a big offsite where they gather all the pods from Seattle, Chicago, New York, and Atlanta together. This year, our lucky location was... you guessed it: Austin! Cue the cheers :)
The JW Marriott hosted our offsite this year and we stayed mainly at the hotel for our sessions. However, we did enjoy some of the special things Austin had to offer like an amazing dinner catered by Saltlick BBQ at the Thurman Mansion the first night. On the second night, we had breakout dinners at Jacoby's and ended the night dancing the night away at Handlebar. No pictures of these adventures, but it was a great offsite!
During one of the brief breaks after our sessions the first day, my roommate, Kate, and I took the time to venture down Congress Ave to the Capitol building. It's a real gem and very easy to tour. The sun started to set, illuminating the St. Mary Cathedral on our way back as well. Felt so great to enjoy the warm Austin air.
The bulk of my exploration started after the offsite, as I extended my stay into the weekend! A few friends from work and I took the liberty of embarking on a scavenger hunt of Austin's many murals after the offsite finished. We found the iconic "I love you so much," "You're my butter half" and "Greetings from Austin" wall art. So fun, and perfect for pictures ;)
One of my favorite places was the South Austin Trailer Park & Eatery, where the original Torchy's food truck lives. If you haven't tried their queso, get there and try it! It's phenomenal! I also got a frozen hot chocolate from Holy Cacao to cool down after walking around all afternoon, which was amazing.
Austin is completely different than any other city I've experienced! Here are a few quick observations I have from my short time there.
1) The Texas loyalty is STRONG and its brand is everywhere. I passed by a CVS that branded itself as "Texas CVS," in case we forgot what state we were in. There aren't a ton of chains and they really support their local businesses. For example, Lyft & Uber don't operate there. Instead, you can support one of their ride share alternatives, like Fasten.
2) Texans don't seem to care what other people think about them - they feel free to be unique, which can be seen by the random placement of every type of truck (pick up, food truck, boutique trucks) everywhere!
3) Cowboy boots are perfectly acceptable (and encouraged) shoes of choice.
On Friday night through the rest of the weekend, I hung out with my friend Shelly from Ann Arbor, who moved to Austin over a year ago. We met up with another one of Shelly's friends and went to Rock Rose, a super trendy street within the Domain outdoor mall. Man do I love weather warm enough to have an outdoor mall! We ended up waiting an hour to eat at Culinary Dropout, a cool exposed kitchen restaurant with live music.
On Saturday, we kicked off the day with an amazing brunch at Snooze. The long line was a testament to their yummy drinks & food. Be prepared to wait, and enjoy their Bloody Mary & mimosas in the meanwhile!
To work off the calories from brunch, we "hiked" Mount Bonnell next. Probably one of my favorite parts of Austin! It offers an incredible view of the city, with jagged rock lining the very tall hill. Picnickers lined the cliff edges and many groups of people lined the paths.
Did you know the first ever Whole Foods started in Austin? The original location sits directly below their corporate office, and features more fresh hot food bars than any other store I've ever been to. Really cool!
To end the afternoon, we visited SoCo (S. Congress Ave) and walked around fun stores like Allens Boots, which is literally a haven for all leather goods, particularly all designs of cowboy boots. Some featured complex flowery embroidery and others displayed bedazzled sequins. I couldn't believe the prices on some of the most popular brands, like Lucchese and Old Gringo. One pair of snakeskin covered red cowgirl boots cost an astounding $5,299.99! To be fair, the leather boots are way more comfortable than they look and I really like them. Highly doubt I'll be purchasing a pair soon though ;)
Durham & Chapel Hill
I didn't enter college at Indiana University with many of my close friends by my side. But by God's grace, before long, I started to meet new faces I'd end up sharing my life with. I first met Cameron when we sat somewhat near each other in S280 "Spanish Grammar in Context." I dreaded the participation points required to get a good grade in the class and I remember Cameron encouraging me to just volunteer *once* per class - it worked!
We ended up striking up a friendship from our Spanish minor, involvement in LAMP (Liberal Arts Management Program), and our participation in the marketing committee of a pre-law fraternity. Little did I know (although it readily became apparent) that this lady would soon become one of my lifelong friends.
Throughout our years at IU, we shared in many adventures together like studying abroad in Spain over the summer when we saw Black Eyed Peas (throwback) in concert, worked as Orientation Leaders at IU (#OTeam12), became roommates our senior year, and made a spring break trip for my very first trip to Disney World...(and IKEA)! Life-changing.
Anyways, since graduating, we've kept in touch over Skype across the distance and time of her attending law school at Duke and me living in Ann Arbor, MI & Chicago. Since Cameron graduates this spring, Steven and I flew out to spend a fun-filled weekend with her in Durham, NC.
We arrived first thing Friday morning. To kickstart our adventure "down south," we visited Dame's Chicken & Waffles. Fried chicken is Steven's favorite and we even ordered a sweet tea because, why not? It turned out to be *very* sweet, so we had to adjust the water ratio quite a bit :p
This restaurant specializes in unique waffle flavors like sweet potato and blueberry, accompanies by yummy smears like peach-apricot, or orange honeycomb. After sampling each plate, I'd have to say the chicken wings + sweet potato waffle + orange honeycomb smear is the clear victor!
After filling our stomachs, we took a stroll along Duke's campus. The Duke Chapel stunned with its beautiful architecture. Absolutely my favorite part of campus!
The next stop...Krzyzewskiville, also known as K-ville, named after Duke's basketball coach. How to describe this interesting place? Located outside the basketball stadium is a flock of tents. You may think you've stumbled to a homeless shelter under a bridge, but it's actually a horde of students camping out for weeks for mens basketball tickets. Talk about dedication and an ability to weather the storm!
I'm now thoroughly convinced Duke has some of the nation's most diehard basketball fans.
We hopped in the car to drive to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, a simply gorgeous garden featuring gazebos just waiting for the next proposal or outdoor wedding. Despite the wintery weather, the Japanese themed portion of the garden touted a few budding sakura blossoms - my favorite!!
After all this walking, we tackled a delicious Mexican meal at Gonzo Taco y Tequila. Their scallop & pork belly tacos were divine. We ended the night at Fullsteam Brewery, where we enjoyed brews & board games.
On Saturday, we visited Chapel Hill, the home of UNC. It's the oldest public university in the US, and looked a lot like Harvard's campus in my humble opinion. Really beautiful, large buildings with pillars out front.
It happened to be Lunar New Year, which the local mall celebrated with decorated Chinese lanterns, panda costumes, and Chinese food galore. Pretty fun to see so many people in the community coming together for such a large celebration! I'd love to have family traditions to celebrate this day too.
We enjoyed an afternoon ice cream at Maple View Farm and coffee at Cocoa Cinnamon, an eclectic, and very crowded coffee shop that supports local organizations with part of its profits. Really cool and highly recommend. In addition, we perused the Nasher Museum of Art on Duke's campus.
Another highlight of the trip was visiting The Pit for North Carolina style BBQ, which is more vinegar based than Texas, which is more sauce based (according to Cameron, our resident BBQ expert).
All in all, such a fun and action packed weekend. We got to spend a lot of quality time with Stella, Cameron's cute little dog too (bonus)! Thanks for having us, and being a wonderful tour guide - even on the UNC campus ;)
Jan 13-15, 2017
There are a few things in life that make winter in Chicago more bearable, and we had the joy of discovering that a weekend getaway to Saint Martin is one of them!
Steven and I took an AMAZING trip to Saint Martin over MLK weekend and enjoyed every minute of it. With a brief layover in ATL, we made it to SXM on Friday afternoon. We stepped off the plane, only to be blinded by the blazing hot sun and scenes of beautiful mountains and palm trees in our midst.
Our first step was shuttling over to Hertz where we picked up our rental car, a white Toyota Yaris. The entire island spans 33 sq miles, so it's entirely possible to drive the entire island in around 2 hours. One of my favorite parts of the island is that it's full of rich culture. Half of the island is occupied by the French, and the other half is Dutch. This is seen even in the way each side spells the name of the island: Saint Martin (French) and Sint Maarten (Dutch).
We stayed in an Airbnb on the French side of the island in Marigot, and would absolutely stay there again. Our Airbnb featured a private pool, a fully equipped studio with a laundry machine and kitchen, balcony, and the building had a back door leading directly to the beach! *heavenly*
Another amazing surprise: our T-Mobile plan gave us data up to 2G (but ended up connecting to 3G or LTE) speeds for free! We thought we'd be relying on paper maps or our car's GPS system...thank goodness we didn't have to!
A kind restaurant owner helped us connect to his wifi so we could contact our Airbnb hosts. His French accent and welcoming spirit represented the first example of the kindness and jovial personalities of people on Saint Martin - they really are the nicest!
After unpacking our bags and meeting our awesome Airbnb hosts, we came back to his restaurant to eat. His name is Jean-Baptiste (how French is that?) and he told his his backstory of moving from Versailles 20 years ago to Saint Martin and working at his restaurant (Le Sous-Marin) ever since.
Jean-Baptiste gestured with his arm for us to follow him and enter his kitchen. He explained how he whips the ingredients for his famous mousse from scratch (we tried it and loved it) and how he ships in meat prepared fresh every day. Very cool experience bonding with him and hearing his story.
On Saturday morning, we soaked in the beautiful sunrise from our window and headed downstairs to visit our backyard beach! (If only life were always like this...!) We strolled to Sarafina's French Bakery for a delightful breakfast of salmon quiche, ham & cheese quiche, and a croissant. Melt in our mouths heaven!
We took a shortcut up a hill to Fort Louis, a fort built in 1789 to defend the French warehouses from British raiders. Twas a lovely view of Marigot Bay and the neighboring island of Anguilla. One of my favorite places in Marigot for sure!
On our way to our next stop, a herd of cows intercepted our paths. I once experienced something similar with sheep in Ireland, but these cows were next level huge! After a short while (the island is small after all), we made it to Friar's Bay, a quaint little beach. Not much to do there, but we did have a peaceful little walk along the shore.
Friar's Bay gave us a nice break before embarking on our intense hike to the tallest point of Saint Martin called Pic Paradis! It's 424 meters high, and quite steep. We drove most of the way up and hiked to the top. Lovely views for sure!
For lunch, we drove to Chez Yvette, a Creole seafood restaurant in the Quarter of Orleans. It's situated in a little house - very easy to miss. Their portion sizes astounded us. They even threw in a free plate of plantains and "johnny cakes", which are flat fried pieces of dough. Talk about under promising and over delivering! Very delicious :)
At this point, we hit the halfway point of the island and made our way to the Dutch city of Philipsburg. It's quite touristy, and the spot where many cruise ships drop off their passengers for the day. We walked along the boardwalk and indulged in some gelato. Maybe a Caribbean island isn't the place to get the best gelato, but it was nice on the hot day!
We thought we would head home for a break at this point, but the sound of soaring airplane jets led us to Maho Beach. It's famous for being right next to Princess Juliana International Airport, so you can stand directly below incoming planes and be (literally) blown away when planes take off. The engines are deafening and the hot air blasting the sand is quite painful on your skin and completely surreal at the same time. As you look around, hordes of people with cameras, phones, and clothing flying everywhere surround you.
In the evening, we finally took a rest at the Airbnb and went out one last time for the night to Little Jerusalem, a highly rated Mediterranean restaurant. It's super affordable and run by a sweet couple. Before I decided what to order off the menu, the owner (Abraham) asked me, "Do you want something delicious, very delicious, or super delicious?" I smiled and replied, "super delicious." He said, "alright, you sit down, I make it for you." Surprises can be fun ;)
Indeed, the night had many surprises as the electricity went out in the restaurant. Steven and I laughed and sat across from each other as they brought out candles. In the simple glow of candlelight, I couldn't help but think to myself that the simple things in life are the happiest.
We turned on our phone flashlights to decipher what type of shawarma Abraham had brought us. It was some type of chicken with maddeningly good garlic sauce. Already craving it again as I write this! The best shawarma I have *ever* had in my life! For $8. Amazing! Wonderful way to end the night.
On our last day, we went back to Sarafina's for breakfast, this time trying a chocolate croissant, freshly squeezed orange juice and a spinach quiche. We visited the Dutch Fort Amsterdam, ironically located in the middle of a beautiful resort full of Americans. It was no Fort Louis, but worth visiting anyways!
We hung out at Maho Beach one last time and ate at Sunset Beach Bar & Grill, a restaurant right on Maho where you can enjoy good food, drinks, and watch the planes fly by. Steven is a plane buff, and told me about the history and model of each plane flying in. Thanks, hubs!
Thus ended our time together in Saint Martin. Short & sweet, but we treasured every minute of it. I'd love to visit again, and highly recommend it for anyone! It's full of culture, wonderful people, and ease of travel around the island. Oh, and lots of sun :)
Nov 3-6, 2016
Fall in New England is absolutely blissful.
Steven works out in Connecticut on Mon-Thurs every week for the consulting life. I joined him on a beautiful weekend out east and we made a road trip out of it, driving up the coast to beautiful New Haven, CT and Newport, RI.
We first stopped at East Rock Park in New Haven on Friday night. With only Google Images to guide us, we didn't have terribly high hopes and expected an average green park. We were so wrong. It blew away our expectations! With high rocks overlooking forests of trees turning orange in autumn, we marveled and stopped the car for pictures every few minutes. Loved it so much!
For dinner, we went to Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, a pizzeria founded in 1925. We enjoyed the white clam and original tomato pie pizzas. Both were A+, especially if you're a fan of thin crust. Down the street in Little Italy, we stumbled into Libby's Italian Pastry Shop where we sampled a Nutella cannoli. They're a little sweet for my tastes, but a good pick me up nonetheless.
To end the night, we warmed up with a hot milk tea from Vivi's Bubble Tea. Not the most local thing we did all night, but who doesn't love bubble tea?
On Saturday morning, we journeyed to Newport, RI, a cute seaside city. We immediately fell in love with the blue seas and the views out on the water. They have tons of small boutiques and little shops, making it feel like a quaint town.
We strolled to Bellevue Avenue, to explore Newport's mansions from the Gilded Age, which date from the mid-19th and 20th centuries. They offer ticket packages where you can visit 1, 2, or 5 houses at the time. The nice thing is, the tickets never expire! We bought the 2 house option, opting to visit the largest and grandest one of all first: The Breakers.
Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt made a fortune from his family's business in steamships and railroads, thereby creating this 70 room "summer cottage" of 137,000+ square feet. Say what?! They provide a free audio guided tour to spin the stories of every room in the house. Facts that stood out to me include the fact that the women needed to keep up an air of wealth, so they changed outfits 8x/day.
During the holidays, they decorate the houses with seasonal decor, so we're hoping to use our second set of tickets then.
Next to Bellevue Avenue, you can walk along the seashore via the Cliff Walk. Our hunger deterred us from walking too much as we wanted to head back for a meal, but it was lovely and dotted with many tourists.
Clam chowder called our names and brought us to the Black Pearl, where it happened to be Restaurant Week and we dined in the open air. We started with clam chowder and then enjoyed a cajun fish sandwich with fries. The finishing touch of the meal? Delicious key lime pie.
We adored Newport, and drove to Providence to check out the city. They have a "water fire" celebration every weekend celebrating different awareness efforts. This week, it was to celebrate Veterans. They had arts & crafts tents set up by the canal, where they had tiny fires lit down the stream.
All in all, enjoying fall in New England was the loveliest and an entirely peaceful getaway. Can't wait to be back again!
Birthday Weekend in Chicago
August 27-28, 2016
Bright summer days in Chicago make any day better. Celebrating my birthday with Steven for the first time made it even better! My childhood friend, Zoe, and I have miraculously kept up a birthday weekend tradition of spending our birthdays together (Me: the 27th, Zoe: the 29th) since living in cities across the US after high school. We've celebrated in Bloomington, Ann Arbor, Boston, and now, Chicago :)
When I found out Zoe planned on visiting, I went on a search for the cutest brunch place in town. The 3 Arts Club Café fit the bill perfectly. It's a quaint cafe located inside Restoration Hardware, aka fitted with upscale furniture and artisanal dishes sure to please any palate.
I had called ahead and heard the wait is typically 2 hours. Since Zoe was arriving at 12pm, I thought it would be perfect if Steven and I arrived at 10am. Wrong! If you arrive at 10am, the wait is only 15 minutes, and turns into a 2 hour long wait as the morning progresses. Therefore, we withdrew our name and ended up with the unexpected time to explore all 5 floors of RH. It's a little too grand for my taste, but definitely inspiring to see such thoughtful and largely "tri-chromatic" interior design.
We also found a cute Farmer's Market right outside, filling 2 blocks of fresh flowers, cheeses, and honey. I also indulged in my free Starbucks birthday drink, whoohoo!
Luckily, we still ended up getting a table at around 12pm still, just in time :) Another perk of the cafe is they offer free valet parking - a huge boon in downtown Chicago. We started with a salmon board appetizer. So delicious! Can't go wrong with salmon and Texas toast with capers and onions!
I ordered the BLT with fries, which was the best I'd ever had! I couldn't finish the whole sandwich, which meant a happy tummy for another meal. Steven had the burger (which was so-so) and Zoe had the truffle grilled cheese (hello wonderful). Catching up is always so lovely!
To help us digest the meal, we walked to North Avenue Beach and soaked in the sun. The Lincoln Park Zoo downtown is free and located in the heart of the city. I've never visited and the three of us decided to visit! They have lions, cheetahs, zebras, camels, and every animal roaming around. It feels very startling to be at a free zoo in the middle of the city, but so very cool. We then cooled off at our apartment before Zoe headed out to have dinner with her mom. So happy we got to enjoy the day together!
For dinner, Steven planned the most grandiose surprise. He told me we had to dress up and shuttled us off to the John Hancock for a dinner on the 95th floor Signature Room. Oh my goodness. He even ordered a lovely vase of flowers for the table. As the sun began to set over the horizon, blue and purple hues filled the sky and I couldn't help but feel like the most lucky and loved lady in all the land. Thank you, darling :)
We enjoyed food rich with flavor and the best surprise came at the end. A cake that said "Happy Birthday Ibana." Hahaha, I don't blame them, my name is not the most common, but it made for a nice laugh.
After dinner, we headed to Navy Pier for the free fireworks that happen every Wednesday and Saturday night. It was a perfect night in every way.
Steven had one last surprise up his sleeve, an Architecture Boat Tour through the Chicago river! We've done the Tall Ship Windy tour before, but this one happened in the city river as opposed to out on the lake. We sat up front and learned about the history of the city like the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 and more. Really fun, and they had light refreshments to accompany the tour.
All in all, a spectacular birthday with loved ones as I entered a new year! I've never lived in a big city before this, but I have to say, Chicago has officially made a place in my heart.
New York City
Aug 14-19, 2016
I haven't been back to New York in a year, and was super excited to go for another week again! This time, I had a training to attend and since Steven hasn't started work yet, we had the opportunity to travel together.
We stayed at the Dream Downtown, which is right across the street from the Google New York office in Chelsea. It's a super hip, artsy, and trendy hotel, known for its ritzy PHD (Penthouse at Dream) rooftop bar and celebrity sightings. I would probably opt for a calmer hotel in the future, but it had a good amount of space for a hotel in downtown New York and worth the experience, especially since you can avoid the high cover charge at the bar by staying at the hotel.
Chelsea Market is one of my favorite markets in the world. It's clean, modern, and has some of the tastiest food around! The Ronnybrook Dairy milkshakes at Creamline are farm to table and absolutely to die for. They're so good I had two while I was there! We also tried Los Tacos No. 1, which Steven thought were the best tacos he'd ever had! They're on the spicer side, but so yummy.
My friend and old roommate, Cameron, spent this past summer interning in NYC, and gave us lots of good food suggestions. WARNING: many food related comments ahead!
Rossopomodoro was an Italian restaurant that did not disappoint! With a name like Rossopomodoro, how could it not be amazing authentic Italian? I had a delicious sausage pizza while Steven had a pasta. Both were fantastic! The owner walked around to his Italian guests and they bantered in Italian. Felt like a little taste of Italy for sure.
Another night, Steven and I traveled to Flushing for a visit to Chinatown. We ate at Taipei Hong, a hole in the wall restaurant he and his sisters have visited before for Taiwanese cuisine. Hello, beef noodle soup and stinky tofu!
The Brooklyn Bridge is another spectacular sight, especially at night when the cars are zooming home and lights illuminate the city. Something interesting about visiting New York this time was how hot it was! I wasn't expecting the heat at this time, but it was hotter than Chicago, even in the evening. As we neared the end of the bridge, we decided shaved ice was in order and took a Lyft to Snowdays. Since I last visited, I think it's become more pricey. It's still amazing and worth a trip if you love sweets, especially cold ones! Their Yetitracks flavor is the best.
While I was at work, Steven worked hard to find us the best entertainment in New York. Of course, we had to look no further than Broadway. Steven found a Broadway Direct Lottery that thousands of people enterper day to gain a coveted seat at an upcoming Broadway show. We had very little hope of winning since we've heard of friends entering every day for a year without ever winning.
Lo and behold, Steven and I had both entered and both won 2 tickets! What are the chances? My friends from Google Ann Arbor, Victoria and Rohini, were also at the training in New York, so we all had the amazing opportunity to see one of Broadway's greatest, The Lion King, together. It was Rohini's first Broadway show and her birthday the next day, which made the experience even better :) We even visited Halal Guys for dinner beforehand, which is hands down one of my favorite foods.
After the show, we visited Momofuku Milk Bar, a must in NYC. They're famous for their cereal milk flavored ice cream. Best way to cool down after a hot day in the city.
The next morning, Steven and I woke up bright and early to greet the world, aka the long line outside Dominique Ansel Bakery to surprise Rohini with one of their fabled "cronuts" for her birthday!! The kitchen outputs ~350 cronuts per day. You can only purchase 2 cronuts per person and they only allow a certain number of people into the store at once. On a weekday, cronuts are usually sold out before 12pm.
The cronuts *absolutely* live up to their hype. They create one flavor per month: in August, it was Black Cherry Valrhona Milk Chocolate. I have no idea what Valrhona is, but it is delicious. Highly recommend - thanks for the recommendation, Cammy!
Later that day, we headed towards the Financial District where we had delicious lobster rolls and the best clam chowder I've ever tasted at Luke's Lobster. It's fairly casual, where you order at the counter and seat yourself at dark wooden countertops with stools. Really yummy :)
To enjoy the evening, we got tickets to visit the One World Observatory during the "prime" sunset hour. I've never been, so I was quite excited. My cousin said the view is to die for and he wasn't mistaken. The best part of going during the sunset hour is we arrived at around 7pm and stayed over an hour to catch the night view lit up by bright lights as well :) Best of both worlds! It's a great area of New York, where you can soak up the 9/11 Memorials and other important NYC sights.
Before heading home, we visited Ample Hills Creamery. Even though they closed in 30 minutes, their line was bumping and their ice cream was crazy delicious, featuring amazing flavors like ooey gooey butter cake. Yum! We worked off the ice cream with a brief walk along Chelsea's beautiful High Line as we called it a night.
Something I love about New York is how alive the city is. There's always something to do, something to eat, and you can find a way to do it all affordably too :)
The next day, we took a stroll through Gansevoort Market, a much smaller version of Chelsea Market. My favorite store was a little succulents booth, with succulents blooming from small pastel colored pots. We had a fancier dinner that night at ABC Cocina, a trendy dinner spot with beautiful Edison lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling.
We passed through Eataly, another favorite spot as well, indulging in a Nutella crepe with berries. Yum :) Seriously could have been a meal on its own. To finish off the night, we got $5 tickets to see The Daily Show writers perform improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade! Absolutely hilarious and I can't believe these people don't have shows on their own! It wasn't overtly vulgar like some comedy can be; instead, it was witty and intellectual, and I was sad when the 50 min show concluded. I could have watched for much longer!
On our last day, we walked down Pier 51, grabbed food to go at Bao Haus (pork belly bao = yas), and visited I CE NY. Oh my goodness, amazingly yummy. They make smashed and rolled ice cream, one of the coolest desserts ever. I had the Thai iced tea with Nutella sauce and mint chocolate chip cookie on top. Strange combination, I know, but I would order it again in a heartbeat!
All in all, a highly productive and unforgettable week in New York. I especially treasure this week because I got to spend it with Steven, and I know that's not a luxury we'll get to enjoy once he starts work in a short week. So thankful to God for all of His blessings in our lives - He is so good!