Hotel Crashing: 4 Other Places We Stayed in Sri Lanka

Because I really cannot top our stay (and odd massage experience) at the Signature Amaya Kandalama, I’m condensing (ha!) the rest of our hotel accommodations in Sri Lanka into this one little (ok, NOT little) post. Most of them were one-nighters anyway, with the exception of the beach house in Unwatana. But they each had their own odd charms.

Langdale by Amaya in Nuwara Eliya – This is another Amaya Spa and Resort and a hotel listed among the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. The description on the SLH website says Langdale is “a picture of old-world elegance in Sri Lanka’s tea-growing heartland,” and that is certainly true.

Exterior of the Langdale Amaya, Sri Lanka

It’s got a very old school, British colonial feel to it, which is always something that makes me slightly uncomfortable, especially in a country as colorful Sri Lanka where the culture is just so vibrant. And that tea country setting is just spectacular.

 

Instead, the Langdale feels like a stuffy British outpost/country with impeccably manicured grounds (the grass looks like a carpet), squeaky floors, a preponderance of chintz and even a dusty reading nook at the top landing. If I were to compare it to something in the U.S., I definitely would not put it in the luxury category. Maybe, more like an inn or a bed-and-breakfast.

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Six Most Memorable (for Better and Worse) Things We Ingested in Hong Kong

I’d love to tell you that on our three-day stop in Hong Kong, we hit all the major tourist attractions and checked them off one-by-one. Alas, that would be a lie.

We did not go to Victoria’s Peak, or Lantau Island. We did not gaze in wonder at the mid-level escalators, or pose for photos in front of the Clock Tower. We did not say hi to the Big Buddha or peak into the Po Lin monastery. We did not go to Disneyland or even the Museum of History.

We ate. And ate. And then ate some more.

We barely even visited the Jade Market, and when we did, it was because we were killing time before our next scheduled feeding.

OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, but only slight. We wanted to taste everything that Hong Kong had to offer, and I think we did a pretty fair job. From milk tea and tomato noodle soup at one of the city’s last dai pai dong to dim sum at the world’s cheapest Michelin star restaurant (the pork buns were the standout) to elegant Cantonese specialties at the Ritz Carlton and inventive Japanese fusion fare at one of the city’s hottest restaurants, we tried a lot of stuff. And then some more stuff.

(Except shark fin soup, even though it was on every damn menu and sold as an ingredient in every damn market).

We weren’t alone on this quest. While we did find and book a couple of restaurants on our own, we also booked two days with Daisann of Little Adventures in Hong Kong before we left home.

Daisann (her name is actually a combination of Daisy and Ann) is the founder of the company and an expat from New York who has lived in Hong Kong for 12 years. With her hands waiving excitedly and her excellent grasp of the Cantonese language, her enthusiasm for Hong Kong and its food scene is completely contagious.

By the second day, I really felt like we were just walking around the city with a good friend who just happened to be a local. My favorite thing was when she would bust out in Cantonese with the shop owners or at the market stalls. Her face would become more animated, her tone would become more forceful, and the looks of respect she got from the locals was priceless. I would really, really highly recommend her services.

So, without further ado, here are the most memorable things we ate on our trip to Hong Kong.

drinks at 001 in Hong Kong
Drinks at 001. Thanks, Aziz Ansari.

Drinks at 001

This place is not easy to find. Especially at night, which it was (you can’t tell from my overly exposed collage above.) Luckily, I had my personal GPS/master navigator XFE to lead the way, and he found it no problem, despite having never even set foot in Hong Kong. At that point, we had actually only been in the city for approximately 2 hours and this was literally our first time out of the hotel. He amazes me.

Anyway, down a whole bunch of small twisty streets, and behind a dull dark gray door with absolutely no signage sits 001, a very swanky speakeasy with delicious cool drinks, plush sink-your-butt seating, and an atmosphere so dark, you can barely see the drinks menu. We had a couple of rounds of drinks, trying the Earl Grey martini, an Old Cuban and a Godfather Smash (can’t remember the fourth cocktail, not surprisingly). Also, the calamari was tasty.

(True story: about five minutes after we got there, a gregarious young guy came in, announced to the bartenders that he had a test tomorrow and needed to try a whole bunch of spirits. He proceeded to order a taste of just about everything in the place, from pisco to grappa to tequila to all kinds of other stuff. It was pretty fun to watch him work his way through all of it, using his spit cup obviously.)

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Hvar: Island of Hvarguments and Hvangovers (Part I)

Lest you think our vacation to Croatia was just sun-dappled blissfulness every single second, I bring you Hvar.

Hvar, Croatia

Actually, Hvar was really a nice little beach town. It was quaint, with narrow medieval streets, cute little square where throngs of young people sat in the shadow of a large church talking and eating ice cream, beautiful harbor full of ridiculous mega yachts that were close enough to give you a glimpse of how the fabulous live.

Hvar Town
Hvar Town (not my picture, by the way)

There were just a few hiccups in Hvar, and by this point we’d become quite spoiled (thanks a lot Villa Dubrovnik), so those hiccups felt like hemorrhages of pure annoyance.

There are approximately 1,000 islands in Croatia, so island hopping is a pretty easy feat. What’s not so easy is picking an island to go to. There are so, so many and they all have their reported charms. Should we go to Korcula, the reported birth place of Marco Polo? Or should we go to Vis, which was off limits to visitors for decades? Maybe we should go to Bisevo, which has a creepy yet beautiful blue cave?

In the end, we went with Hvar. It had lovely lavender fields, a twisty road running through it, and quite the cosmopolitan party scene. It was, we were told, where the rich go to play.

We took the car ferry from Drvenik (a bit north of Dubrovnik) over to Sucuraj, a tiny town on the tip of the island of Hvar. After a nice leisurely lunch in Sucuraj, we started along the twisty old road that snakes through Hvar island.

(Please notice I said, “road,” singular. There is only the one road running through the island. Sure, there are little trails shooting off from the main road, but they were largely unpaved. My point is: there is only one primary road. You can just make it out in the map below.)

Hvar map

About halfway across the island, we noticed that the road got significantly smoother and there were signs of new asphalt. How nice, we thought. Capital improvement projects at work in Croatia. Hooray!

We arrived on the outskirts of Hvar Town, carefully following the directions toward the place where we were allowed to park our car. You see, because Hvar Town is pedestrian (and yacht)-only, we had to park the car at a different hotel than the one we were staying at in the center of town.

We quickly hit a traffic jam on the tiny pedestrian street that led to our parking spot. A very frantic Croatian Good Samaritan came over and loudly proclaimed (with much gesticulating) that there had been a gas spill, that there was no way to get through and that we’d have to turn around. She estimated that the road would be open again in about 4 or 5 hours.

another-crazy-lady
“You cannot get through! You can’t! You cannot!”

Unable to find an alternate route to the car park, we called the hotel, who directed us to a local paid parking lot. We then waited for the golf cart that would come and pick up our luggage to take it to the hotel. Just the luggage. We would have to walk. Which was fine, but just struck us as pretty funny.

The Riva Hvar Yacht Harbor Hotel was a typical European hotel in a great location. It had very sleek and modern interiors (think red lacquer and large, pixilated images of Hollywood icons), impossibly tiny rooms (we had to move ourselves and our luggage around like Tetris pieces to maneuver), and a hopping outdoor bar scene.

Hotel in Hvar, Croatia

Riva Hvar Yacht Harbor Hotel

Bathroom at Riva Hvar Yacht Harbor Hotel

They had given us one of their best rooms, which had a tiny balcony overlooking the outdoor bar and the harbor packed with luxury yachts.

Balcony at Riva Hvar Yacht Harbor Hotel

We knew that the Riva Hvar Yacht Harbor Hotel would be loud – it had an outdoor circular bar out front, for crying out loud. (That’s it below)

Bar below our room at Riva Hvar Yacht Harbor Hotel

We’d been forewarned and we had read (and thoroughly believed) the reviews. Hvar’s main open-air dance club, Carpe Diem, was literally two doors/patios down. So the nonstop thumping club music didn’t bother us at all. In fact, when we got there in the late afternoon, there was quite the daytime party going on at Carpe Diem, complete with bikini tops, suspenders, and country flags worn as capes or cover ups. Along with the ubiquitous Croatian naval cap.

Croatian sailing hats
The ubiquitous hats. I, in full disclosure, may actually have one of those striped ones there.

Party in Hvar

That’s Carpe Diem in that picture about three canopies over.

We had dinner reservations at one of Hvar Town’s best restaurants, Gariful, which certainly lived up to its excellent reputation.

Gariful restaurant in Hvar, Croatia

The waterfront location was lovely, the service was superb and our grilled fish platter for two was so good, we went out and bought our own grill basket so we could grill whole fish at home. The server did an unbelievable job deboning the various fish on the platter (amberjack, sea bass, and one more, I think). We accompanied it with a wonderful bottle of crisp Tomic Chardonnay.

Gariful restaurant in Hvar, Croatia

(Honestly, the lobster was overkill)

At around 10, Carpe Diem (which is next door to Gariful) started up again after a three-hour break/cleanup. We finished our dinner and were planning on making a quick stop at our hotel for an in-room pre-game drink before heading over to the club.

It is a universal truth that there comes a point in one’s vacation where one is quite touchy over the abundance – or lack thereof — of ice. Ice certainly is a very basic hotel amenity, and when your hotel converts into a bar at night, you’d certainly expect to be able to get a small bucket of ice.

Alas, the Riva Hvar Yacht Harbor Hotel was out of ice on this particular night, which led to what shall be forever known as “The Dumbest Vacation Fight in the History of the Known World,” and a cancelling of all evening festivities. Instead, we put in our earplugs and went to bed, the room vibrating around us.

Check back tomorrow for the gripping conclusion. Will either of us get any sleep? (surprisingly, yes) Will we break up after the DVFITHOTKW? (no, we did not) Will we ever find ice again? (yes) Will we ever get off the island of Hvar? (Now there’s a good question…..)

Croatia: What Goes With Oysters? Pasta Cake of Course.

Meandering around medieval cities, popping into photography museums, and lying on pebble-y beaches is all well and good. But what I really like to do on vacation is drink wine during normal business hours while my fellow cubicle dwellers are in over-air-conditioned purgatory.

So, we went to the Peljesac peninsula for a day.

One of the surprising things about Croatia is how fantastic their wines are. But honestly, it shouldn’t be, considering how similar Croatia is to Italy, and well, we all know how Italian wines have turned out.  (It’s also apparently quite good in the northern part of Croatia — Istria — according to this knowledgeable lady who was also JUST there.)

Other than some traffic in and around Dubrovnik, the drive up the peninsula was lovely. Lots of slate colored rocks pushing up into mountains and dotted with greenery and grape vines. Oh, and ocean views pretty much everywhere you looked.

Croatian countryside

There’s only one main road going up the 40 mile peninsula, but the drive takes about 2 hours due to the terrain. We ended up going about three-fourths of the way up the peninsula, stopping at a tiny little picturesque cove of Trstenik where we watched the goats beat up against the small docks and just viewed the sleepy little town from across the cove.

Trstenik cove, Croatia

After that peaceful little time out, which involved me waiting patiently while my Ansel Adams boyfriend XFE took numerous pictures with his fancy new camera, it was time to backtrack and hit some wineries.  (Literally, the town was so still and quiet I thought it’d had been taken over by alien-ghost-zombies. I stayed close to the car, ready to leave XFE to the apocalypse, if it came down to it. Sorry, i’m not sorry. I totally would. I have a cat to raise.)

I had done a ton of research and identified about a dozen wineries that we might be able to visit, but like so much of the Peljesac peninsula, things were a bit sleepy on the informational front, meaning that many of the wineries did not have websites and those that did, did not have hours of operation. They’re very much along the lines of, “just stop by and flag someone down and they’ll give you some wine.”

Our first stop was a disappointing bust. We tried to stop at Grgich. Grgich is quite famous. Apparently the wine maker, Miljenko (Mike) Grgich came to the United States as a young man and met a very rich person who set him up with his own winery. That’s not at all what it says in his bio for his Napa Valley winery, but that’s what our waiter at lunch told us. When he found out we were from Washington D.C., he ran and got a bottle of Grgich Chardonnay and told us it was the White House white wine.

That would be the only Grgich wine we would see that day. The Grgich winery, which was in a very simple stucco building, was closed on the weekends. Which, to me, makes absolutely no sense. What winery isn’t opened on a Saturday? Isn’t that a busy day for visitors?

Vinarija Matusko in Potomje worked out a bit better, in that, at least it was open. We had a very nice young lady take us through the various wines, of which there were plenty, including Dingac, Posip (not to be confused with Prosip, which was a sweet wine),  and Plavac Mali. The Dingac was, not surprisingly considering the rocky terrain, far too mineral-ly for my taste, but we did like the Plavac Mali and ended up buying a bottle.

Vinarija Matusko in Potomje

The wine wench (?is that appropriate?) told us a bit about the peninsula, which apparently is as subdued as we suspected. To be frank, she said it was quite boring. And you need a car. She also taught me how to say “dog” (there was a large wine dog watching us with big bloodshot eyes nearby) in Croatian and “cheers.”

After tasting some wines, we went down the road a short bit to Vinarija Milos. This time, there were quite a few other people there for tastings, including an American family with about 4 kids. Because you know what I love to see at a winery, besides pregnant women? Loads of children.

 Vinarija Milos winery in Croatia

It was also a very homegrown operation, with the wine maker on hand pouring and his wife hand washing wine glasses just on the other side of the tasting bar. I don’t know if it was the scent of dish-washing detergent or the children, but I just wasn’t into Milos’ wines. What can I say? You win some, you lose some. I’m sure the wine was fine, but we just weren’t feeling it. Plus, it was time to go to lunch.

We were ridiculously excited about lunch. The Peljesac peninsula is known for two things: wine and oysters. Very special oysters that you can’t get anywhere else.

Right where the peninsula meets the mainland is Ston and Mali Ston.  Ston’s natural lake-like bay has been the site of mussels and oyster farms since Roman times. We even saw fishermen selling oysters by the road. The area is also known for it’s salt flats, but I wasn’t interested in salt so much, unless it was sprinkled on some oysters.

We had lunch reservations at Bota Sare in Mali Ston, an 800-year-old stone building that had been used for salt storage in ye olden tymes.

Oyster boat for Bota Sare in Mali Ston
Our restaurants boat.

The oysters are a variety called Ostrea Edulis and only 2 million are produced each year, solely for domestic consumption. The oysters are smaller than others we’ve had, and the shells are very fat. The meat was rich and firm and wonderful.

We ended up ordering about 4.5 dozen oysters — raw, grilled and fried. They. Were. Amazing.

Ostrea Edulis oysters in Ston, Croatia

Ostrea Edulis oysters in Ston, Croatia

I’m also pretty sure that our fellow diners were quite impressed at how many oysters we put away, but since we knew we couldn’t get these anywhere else (and they were delicious), we gorged.

Ostrea Edulis oysters in Ston, Croatia

However, I still found room to take home some dessert. I overheard our waiter explaining Ston cake to another table and was intrigued. A cake made with leftover pasta? How’s that? Yes. Yes, I want some.

Pasta cake at Bota Sare, Ston, Croatia

It was weird, and cinnamon-ey, and lemon-y and just…..odd. It wasn’t pretty, really. It was very odd looking. And the texture was….interesting.

Just like the Peljesac peninsula — totally distinct but in a good way.

Wars, Orphans and Orbs: Dubrovnik’s Old Town

My travel buddy for life XFE and I live in a part of Northern Virginia/Greater Washington DC area known as Old Town. It’s pretty cute. Full of cobblestone sidewalks, antique shops, and historic buildings with plaques announcing that George Washington once drank some cider on this exact location. Most of the old houses, churches and pubs were built in the 1770s, which is one of the reasons it’s the third oldest historic district in the country.

But, our Old Town is a pimply preteen compared to Dubrovnik’s Old Town.

Dubrovnik's Stradun Street in Old Town
Old Town’s Stradun Street

Dubrovnik was founded in the 7th century by a group of refugees from Epidaurum. I don’t even know where Epidaurum is or was. I think it’s part of Greece or Rome or something, but I couldn’t say for sure. Let’s just say, shit is that old.

I had read a history of Croatia, including the sly way that the rich merchants in Dubrovnik were able to play conquerors off each other and avoid being occupied themselves. Dubrovnik stayed an independent city-state until the French came along in the early 1800s.

Funny wall decoration in Old Town, Dubrovnik
Funny wall decoration in Old Town

Despite my considerable, newly-acquired Croatian expertise, we decided to continue our custom of hiring a tour guide for the day to show us around the city. After searching around on the Interwebs a bit, I found a great new website called ToursByLocals.com. The idea is pretty self-explanatory: You click on “Find a Tour” and the website gives you a whole list of local tour guides along with their qualifications, photos, expertise, prices, and recent reviews. It was totally like Match.com for tour guides.

We picked Almira as our tour guide, asked if we could have an earlier start time, and ToursByLocals handled the rest. Almira emailed us within 48 hours of our request and we were confirmed. We’ll definitely be using them again.

Our Dubrovnik guide, Almira
You can see Almira. That’s her hat on the bottom left.

The morning of our tour, we walked the 30 minutes from our hotel to Pile Gate entrance to the Old Town. Almira was right on time and very friendly. Armed with water and sun hats, we started our walking tour right outside the gate in a public square where executions took place during World War I (Italians executing Croats).

Old Town, Dubrovnik, Croatia
“Your execution super spot since 1308”

Almira explained to us how the Epi-Greek/Roman people established their settlement on the island and named it Laus, while just across the way at the bottom of Srd Mountain, the Slavs had their own little settlement called dubrova which meant oak forest. When the channel that separated these two settlements was filled in the 12th century they were united. The main street through the Old Town is called Stradun but in Croatian, it’s known as Paca, which derives from the word for “dirt,” signifying the dirt road that was filled in to connect the two settlements.

Stradun in Old Town, Dubrovnik, Croatia
Another view of the Stradun

Right inside Pile Gate, Almira showed us a map that shows you where the Old Town was damaged during what Almira and other Croats call the Homeland War, the Croatian War for Independence from Yugoslavia and an emboldened Serbia. We sat silently perusing the map while behind us vendors sold ice cream and school children ran around trying to give each other the Croatian version of cooties.

The primary evidence of the war can be seen in the rooftops. All the roofs in Old Town—which you can clearly see from the top of the city’s medieval wall walk–are made of distinctive orange terra cotta tiles. More than 70% of Croatia’s red roof tiles were destroyed during the Balkan Wars, so everywhere you look, there are new tiles interspersed with old tiles. There was quite the collection and conservation effort after the war, with nations around the world donating replacement tiles made in Toulouse, France.

View of roofs in Dubrovnik, Croatia

It was quite sad to see beautiful old medieval wars pocked with shrapnel, but it’s nothing compared to the damage seen by other cities in Croatia. In fact, it was the attacks on Dubrovnik, a much-beloved UNESCO-protected Heritage Site that finally galvanized the international community to say, “whoa, whoa, whoa. That’s enough of that. It’s all well and good to annihilate some podunk little village in the middle of nowhere, but let’s not go after a cultural and artistic center.”

Red roof tiles in Dubrovnik, Croatia
What’s that? More red-tiled roofs? No problem.

After our tour, XFE and I went to the War Photo Limited museum, a two-story museum owned and operated by a photographer who had covered the Homeland War. It was very well done and a gut wrenching experience. It’s difficult to see contemporaries–people wearing similar clothes to you, using common  everyday brands that you use—and seeing them in the midst of war right in their own streets. Instead of seeing photos of brave soldiers, you saw photographs of people just trying to walk down their street and getting hit by sniper fire.

Streets of Old Town, Dubrovnik, Croatia

When we walked out of the cool, dark museum and out into the sunny narrow streets of the Old Town, I had to blink away what I’d just seen. We walked quietly through the beautiful narrow streets, our sandals skimming the slippery, worn down stones that made up the streets. We stumbled across church after church, many of them featuring statues of Dubrovnik’s patron saint, St. Blaise. There are, according to Almira, 27 St. Blaise statues throughout the tiny city, including three seated figures and one in profile.

St. Blaise Church, Dubrovnik
I can’t spot it, but I’m sure there’s a St. Blaise statue somewhere in there.

We walked past St. Nicholas church. Good old Saint Nick was the patron saint of fisherman, so of course he has a church in this port city. What I didn’t know is that St. Nicholas is often pictured with three gold orbs, which were a dowry he gifted to three poor sisters. He threw the first two orbs through their window, but he threw the third down the chimney, which is why he’s associated with chimneys.

We also went past a tiny window with a sort of Lazy Susan swivel that was used by noble ladies to drop off their unwanted babies in the dead of night. Apparently, Dubrovnik is also home to the oldest orphanage, which was established in the Old Town in the 1400s. In another romantic touch, according to Almira, the babies would be given a half coin piece and the mother would keep the other half. That would allow the disgraced noble woman to come back and retrieve her child someday, if her circumstances had somehow changed.

By now, we’d worked up a good appetite and were ready for a mid-day glass of white wine, so we headed to one of Almira’s recommendations for lunch, Kobun, which lies at the top of some stairs that are very similar to the Spanish Steps in Rome. After a leisurely lunch of mussels for me and monkfish for XFE, we walked past some stalls selling jewelry, including a type of necklace called a Dubrovnik button, also called Konavoske Puce. It’s like an open filigree design that’s used in necklaces and earrings. I picked one with a bit of coral, which is also very popular in this area.

Croatian mussels

It was a very pleasant and illuminating day. In the battle of the Old Towns, I’d have to give Dubrovnik a slight edge over Old Town, Alexandria. But just barely. After all, we’ve got George Washington plaques all over the place to tell us how important everything is.

Dubrovnik's farmer's market
Dubrovnik’s farmer’s market, which had some amazing candied almonds, lemon and orange peels.

San Sebastian Revisited (Six Months Later)

I have a weird blogging habit – I hate to put up my last post from a particular vacation.

I guess subconsciously I feel like it’s the last time I’ll savor a place. That writing that last post means that vacation is truly ended and in the books and only to be relived on the computer screen. It’s no longer a memory selfishly locked away in my heart. And it makes me very sad.

But one of the main purposes of this blog is to put down all the great things we saw, and did, and ate, so that I could remember them and share them.

lacquered monkfish at Arbelaitz in San Sebastian, Spain
Wait, what was this again and where did we eat it? (lacquered monkfish at Arbelaitz)

And still, I dilly dally.

This post about San Sebastian is the perfect example. It’s been sitting, partially written in my inbox since December 13.

Opening the email this morning sent a wave of yearning over me. I absolutely, unequivocally and totally fell in love with San Sebastian. Especially, the food. And the architecture. And the shopping. And the beaches. But mostly, the food.

San Sebastian, Spain
The view from our hotel in San Sebastian.

This elegant, seaside gem of the Basque Country was also the scene of the most awkward dinner I’ve ever sat through.

But let me back up. Waaaay, back. Like, to 2012. November to be exact.

We reluctantly left the Rioja region and headed up north, to the coast of Spain. Weaving our way up and over the mountains, we drove through at least a dozen tunnels. Apparently, the Spanish never choose to go around a mountain, they instead choose to go through them. Below us, small industrial towns dotted  the bottom of the valleys.

We followed a semi-coastal road, stopping in small seaside towns of Zumaia, Zarautz, and Gettaria.

Rioja region, Spain

Finally, we drove into San Sebastian and were immediately charmed. Just 20 km from the French border, San Sebastian looks like Paris with gorgeous Belle Epoque architecture and wide, tree-lined avenues, beautiful bridges crossing the river Urumea, and two stunning beaches, right in the middle of town.

We stayed at the newly renovated Hotel Maria Cristina, another Starwood Luxury Property. The hotel, which originally opened in 1912, has 136 rooms and suites, all done in soothing, cool grays, silvers, lavenders, and creams. It was plush and ornate and just majestic.

Lobby at Hotel Maria Cristina, San Sebastian, Spain
Hotel lobby
Our room at Hotel Maria Cristina, San Sebastian, Spain
Our room
Our living room at Hotel Maria Cristina, San Sebastian, Spain
Our living room

We had a large suite with a separate living room and small Juliet balconies overlooking the public square below and the Victoria Eugenia Theater where the annual San Sebastian Film Festival is held.

Our balcony at Hotel Maria Cristina, San Sebastian, Spain
Our balcony. Yes. A balcony.

Reluctantly, we left the amazing room to go out and explore. First stop, Zurriola surf beach to watch brave surfers battle the cold water. It was definitely warm for November (around the low 70s), but there’s no way that water wasn’t a tiny bit chilly. We sat at a bar on the boardwalk with outdoor seating and watched numerous people brave the water, only to running back to the beach a few minutes later.

Beach at San Sebastian

After walking around a bit and getting our bearings, we headed back to the hotel to get ready for our dinner at Michelin-star Miramon Arbelaitz. XFE had asked our hotel for dinner suggestions and they sent us a list of suggestions. After much research of websites, XFE choose Arbelaitz, which seemed quite innovative. Our hotel concierge made the reservation for us.

Unbeknownst to us, Arbelaitz was a bit off the beaten path. In fact, it was in a technology industrial park.

We had a 9 or 9:30 reservation, which we thought was late enough for the Spanish. However, we arrived to an empty restaurant. Could it be that even 9 pm was too early for dinner in Spain??

We were greeted by a lovely small Spanish woman, who led us to our table in the romantically lit and tastefully modern dining room and ordered the very affordable tasting menu, starting with fresh oysters. Show tunes played in the background (Cabaret, Gypsy, etc.) Next was a grilled artichoke dish, followed by a wonderful lobster royal accompanied by the sound of pot and pans in the nearby kitchen.

Arbelaitz, San Sebastian, Spain
Grilled artichokes, chard stems in batter, porcini mushrooms and jus of ham.

After the next course of marinated tuna, I’d finally had enough wine to broach the subject that had us burning with curiosity: where were the other guests? I gently asked the lovely Spanish lady if they were very busy this time of year. She explained that they were very busy during lunch with workers from the nearby technology companies. Then she went and got our next course, a divine lacquered monkfish with eggplant.

We were the only customers that night. The chef, Jose Mari Arbelaitz came out and greeted us, not once, but twice. We tried to convey how honored we were that he and (we presumed) his wife had opened up their restaurant just for us. I have no idea why they didn’t just tell us they weren’t open or that they weren’t taking reservations for dinner, or something.

As we silently ate our way through our saddle of venison roasted with citrus, blueberries and rosemary purple potatoes, we tried to not feel conspicuous. The meal was great, but the overall experience was very, very awkward.

Arbelaitz, San Sebastian, Spain
Saddle of venison roasted with citrus, blueberries and rosemary purple potatoes.

The next day, we wandered around the Parte Vieja (Old Town) section of San Sebastian, just enjoying the tiny, winding cobblestone streets. We had no plan, except a lunch reservation at Kokotxa, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the neighborhood, and the one of the very few to be open this slow time of the year (our first choices, Arzak and Akelarre were both closed during non-touristy November).

Koktxa restaurant, San Sebastian, Spain

But the problem with our well-laid plans is that all the streets were lined with pincho bars. We resisted the lure of the beckoning doorways with dark, patron-packed bars and rows of plates teetering with jewel-toned small bites. They looked like works of stained glass – red and green chiles, pink strips of Serrano ham, silvery anchovies, bright yellow mousses.

Pinchos or pinxtos

Our reserve was further tested when we did a walk-by of our chosen lunch spot. Unlike all of the pincho bars we had just passed, it looked dead. Really, really dead. We walked along the waterfront of the old fortress city and dithered back and forth, “Should we call and cancel? It’s kind of last minute. Yeah, but did you see it? There was nobody there. It’s supposed to be really good. I do not want a repeat of last night’s meal where we’re the only people in the place.” (Although the meal was, as I said, very, very good.)

We eventually capitulated to the lure of the pinchos. Our first stop, Atari Gastroteka, was located right in front of the pretty yellow Iglesia Santa Maria del Coro.

San Sebastian street
Nice church. Sure, I’ll eat in the shadow of that plaza.

Church in San Sebastian

It attracted us because it was pretty full, including a large group (dogs and children included) of Spanish-speaking friends leisurely holding court at a picnic table out front. The amount of plates and glasses and overflowing ashtrays gave testament to the fact that they’d been there for quite a while. That was enough of an endorsement for us.

We were quite unlike our delicate Spanish friends, who generally wash down one or two small bites with lots of conversation before eventually, slowly moving to the next place. Our American appetites and curious bellies demanded we try one of everything. Slabs of potato-stuffed tortillas, papas bravas, seafood salads on crostinis, crab-stuffed chiles, goat cheese with asparagus, and countless others were consumed alongside our new favorite Baigorri wine.

Papas bravas, San Sebastian

We went to a blur of places, washing down the little works of pincho art with amazing crisp white wines. We stopped in at the highly recommended A Fuego Negro, but it was too crowded for us to get close to the bar. Considering the huge array of choices we had anywhere along the street, we took our spoiled taste buds elsewhere and kept wandering.

But it was around 3 pm when we found our pincho heaven – La Cuchara de San Telmo. It was a bit off the beaten path, hidden down a side street, but it was by far the best place we ate, maybe even the entire trip. Since it was close to the end of lunch service (they close at 3:30 and reopen at 7:30), we were able to grab a spot at the bar and had a long meaningful relationship with the menu.

Menu at La Cuchara San Telmo, San Sebastian, Spain

Aided by a wonderful barman from Nicaragua who happened to know more about U.S. politics than either of us DC residents, we worked out way through San Sebastian’s most popular and innovative pinchos – one perfectly cooked bacon-wrapped scallop, braised calf cheeks in red wine, grilled octopus. The special of the day, the pigs ear on a chickpea puree was, unfortunately sold out.

Scallop at La Cuchara San Telmo, San Sebastian, Spain
bacon-wrapped scallop
braised beef at La Cuchara San Telmo, San Sebastian, Spain
braised beef

Never one to pass up a chance at pork, we asked them to save us one and swore we’d be back in the evening to try it. It was totally worth it. It was crispy and soft and salty and just perfect. We also added foie gras with apple compote and queso cabra topped with grilled vegetables to the pincho carnage tally. And, we might have revisited a few of our favorite dishes from lunchtime again (What? Being a tourist is very hungry work! And the portions are really small!)

La Cuchara San Telmo, San Sebastian, Spain
Blurry pigs ear.

We ended the evening chatting with a very cool young American couple from Denver who also ordered everything on the La Cuchara menu. After one last ginormous gin and tonic (served in large wine goblets with real juniper berries, naturally), we bid farewell to our friends, stumbled our big bellies back to our hotel and collapsed, dreaming of soft, succulent pig’s ears. It had been a big foodie day for us.

Giant Spanish gin and tonic

Unbelievable food, great wine and new friends.  It was the perfect end to our time in San Sebastian, and Spain. I truly cannot wait to go back.

Peru Eats that May or May Not Make You Ill

Well, well, well. Looks like I brought a souvenir back from Peru and I’m not talking about the gorgeous alpaca sweater I got at Sol in Lima.

Giardia

No, I’m talking about a parasite in my small intestine. Actually, there’s probably more than one of them. So, a pack of parasites, if you will. (they look so happy in the picture above. Very disconcerting.)

I went to the doctor on Tuesday and she quickly diagnosed me with Giardia. Doesn’t that sound like some sort of lovely plant or bush? “Just look at that Giardia flowering over the balustrade over the portico.”

It’s apparently quite common in cats and dogs. Guess I should have taken my preventative Frontline before the trip.

Anyway, it all continues to be unpleasant and fairly disgusting. I’m on antibiotics for the next week.

Not surprisingly, my new favorite pastime is to go over (in my mind) again and again everything I ate or ingested during the trip. I thought it was a fairly clean cut case against the coconut paleta I had in Lima, but who really knows? Let’s review some of what we ate while in Peru.

Pisco Sour

The lovely national drink of Peru. It’s composed of Peruvian Pisco (it’s kinda like a brandy), lime or lemon juice, simple syrup, ice, egg white and a drop of Angostura bitters.

Pisco sour in Peru

Our scientific findings, which included consumption of Pisco Sours at no less than four upscale hotels and more than a couple of restaurants, was that the best Pisco Sour in Peru can be found at the executive lounge at the Westin Lima Hotel and Convention Center. Amazing. The bartender didn’t use a mix (as some other places did) and he vigorously blended it in a shaker by hand – not a blender, as was more common. It was our first Pisco Sour of the trip and it was smooth and creamy and not too sour. We spent the rest of our time chasing another one like it.

Ceviche

The lovely national dish of Peru. It’s made from fresh raw fish marinated in citrus juices until the chemical reaction causes a sort of cured/cooked state. Sorta like pickling.

ceviche in Peru

I’d like to think that the three or four times we had it the fish was fresh, but who knows. When we had it, we shared it, and while XFE has had some slight stomach issues, they’re not nearly the scale of my own, so I’m willing to give ceviche a pass as the culprit.

Cuy

Yes, despite my sworn protestations, I did partake in some guinea pig. BUT, it was a very small bite and was one course in a 17-course tasting menu at Astrid & Gaston, one of the finest restaurants in Lima. It was done in a Peking style, so I could barely taste it between the corn crepe and the sauce.

Cuy at Astrid & Gaston, Lima Peru

Alpaca

I had an alpaca loin at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge on the night of my birthday. I’m not sorry to say: It was really, really good. Kind of like a cross between lamb and a pork chop. Very tasty. I’d definitely eat it again.

Alpaca at the Sanctuary, Machu Picchu

Cancha salada

Toasted dried chulpe corn,salted and crunchy. These awesome little snacks were frequently put out when we ordered drinks. Delicious. I loved them. Sorta like  Corn Nuts (but not as processed).

Cancha_corn_snack

Rioja Part Two: Do Great Architects Make Good Wine?

“This Gehry guy really seems to know what he’s doing,” I said out loud, albeit, a bit breathlessly. I’m pretty sure the bellhop heard me on that one.

The swirling riot of metallic ribbons of fuschia, gold and silver that make up the roof of the Hotel Marques de Riscal will do that to a girl.

You would think after seeing Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, I’d have been a bit more jaded, a bit more prepared for the impact of a Gehry-designed building. I mean, how many times can one swoon at the site of some curved titanium?

Apparently, in my case at least, there is no cap on being awe-stricken by a building. And as the Spanish sun reflected the colors of the roof onto the ground beneath my feet, I was again amazed by architecture.

Marques de Riscal hotel and winery

The Hotel Marques de Riscal was the whole crazy origins of this trip to Spain. As a Starwood Luxury Property, we would stumble across pictures of it on Starwood’s website. It seemed incongruous to see this crazy modern property nestled in the center of a tiny old Spanish town.

It went into the “maybe someday” file.

But as we started talking about our trip to Spain, we decided we wanted to go somewhere off the beaten path. Someplace neither of us had been and that we would see together for the first time.

And then, of course, there was the wine.

Continue reading Rioja Part Two: Do Great Architects Make Good Wine?

Take a Bow, Bilbao

Bilbao. The name itself fills the mouth. I’ll admit, at first, I kept messing it up. Pronouncing it like the last name of a certain famous movie boxer. I could not quite get my tongue around it. For the record, it’s Bihl. Bow. As in, take a bow.

And indeed, the resilient Spanish city by the bay should take a bow.

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Bilbao has rebuilt itself several times, usually after being wiped out by a war. Surrounded by iron ore and located on the Biscay Bay, the city focused on its industrial growth, particularly exporting iron to Great Britain, and shipbuilding.

Several factors in the 1980s, including labor disputes and terrorism from Basque separatist group ETA, caused the city to switch to a more services-focused path of economic growth. It’s now home to major companies, particularly in the banking sector. And the whole city has been undergoing an urban renewal, kicked off by the opening of the Frank Gehry-designed Bilbao Guggenheim Museum in 1997.

(Interesting side note: earlier this week, ETA announced that they are ready to disband after more than 45 years of fighting for Basque independence. I’m pretty sure our visit had something to do with that).

Bilbao was the first stop on our Spanish vacation and was a good introduction to the Basque region. We were attracted to the city by the fact that 1) there was an international airport nearby, so it was easy for both of us travelling from different directions to get to; 2) the Guggenheim Museum; 3) it was off the beaten path. But what really clinched the deal was the fact that there was a soccer game at the same time we were planning to be there.

The airport: XFE was already in the south of Spain for work, and I was flying over to meet him. The Bilbao airport itself is pretty lackluster and a bit depressing. It was small, particularly for an international airport serving 3.9 million customers, and it didn’t have any shops or restaurants. It was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who also designed one of the wineries we went to later in the week. Overall, it was very modern, but in a cold, concrete-gray kind of way.

But, it was easy to get in and out of, so that’s a bonus.

The Guggenheim: We figured going to northern Spain in November was a risk, weather-wise. We expected cold, rainy and gloomy, so we thought it would make a perfect excuse to spend a day in a museum. It was indeed chilly and drizzly the day we went to the Guggenheim, but the inside was comfortable, and because it was November, blessedly free of masses of tourists (the Guggenheim had 4 million visitors in its first three years). If anything, the gray skies made a fantastic contrasting backdrop to the gold, undulating exterior made of sandstone, titanium and glass.

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The museum is pretty massive with a total of 256,000 square feet, but it doesn’t feel that big. It was well laid out and focused on modern art. A couple of our favorites were the Jenny Holzer installation piece of large LED columns with phrases in English and Basque, and a current exhibit of works by Austrian painter Egon Schiele.

But the real star of the show is the building. It is breathtaking. We stayed at the Hotel Miro, which is spitting distance from the museum and had a waterfront room with views of the museum so we could see it day and night. It never got old.

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I’ve heard it described many ways — like a giant ship in a nod to Bilbao’s maritime past, like a giant fish with scales made up of titanium, like a flowing river reflecting back into the River Nervion it hovers over. It was all of that and more. It was one of those buildings that somehow stirs an emotion in you.

The Hotel Miro was great, both in location (city center) and amenities. It’s very modern and small, and had a great breakfast including pour-your-own mimosas. It was close to the museum, shopping and the soccer stadium.

The beaten path: Bilbao was quite a surprise to us, but a very pleasant one. Neither one of us knew anyone who had ever been there, so we had no idea what to expect. But the city is a beautiful mix of old and new buildings with wide European avenues lined with trees and lots of pedestrian-only streets and bridges. There’s a fairly new metro system, but we never needed it during our two-day stay.

Thanks to the great location of our hotel, we walked everywhere. Our first night in town, we fought off jetlag by strolling over to the Gran Via and the Plaza Eliptica for a couple of hours of shopping. All the major Spanish chains were well represented, including Zara, Mango and Maje.

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And meat. There were lots of meat shops.

On Sunday afternoon, we made like Spainards and strolled through the lovely Dona Casida Itturizar Park on our way to the soccer game. It was a gorgeous fall day, and everyone was out, pushing strollers, chasing kids and walking dogs. Usually, in that amazing way that European women have, all three at the same time and looking stylish while doing it.

We didn’t really make any dinner plans, but more often than not found ourselves eating pinxtos at the casual English-themed bar next to the hotel. There was a post-soccer/all-day-drinking feast at a donner kabob place near the hotel. At the time, I was sure it was the best restaurant in all of Spain.

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I cannot remember the name of the bar next to the hotel, but it was very friendly and had some fairly good pinxtos.

Which brings us to our final deciding factor: the soccer game.

When we first started planning our trip, we looked up the schedules for three soccer teams in Northern Spain: Sevilla, San Sebastian and Bilbao. Only one was playing on the weekend we would be there: Athletico Bilbao.

Spain, like all of Europe, is crazy about soccer. It’s like a holiday when the home team is in town, and Bilbao was no exception. They regularly reach full capacity in their 40,000 seat San Mames, known affectionately as the Cathedral. (Don’t worry, they’re building an even larger new 53,000 seat stadium right next to the old one to open sometime in 2013 – the 100th anniversary of the original stadium).

It’s an understatement to say we were very concerned about our ability to get tickets to the game.

We contacted our concierge to get tickets but were told they weren’t released until the week of the game. His recommendation was that we stand in line at the stadium to buy them the day before the game. Not a very appealing option.

Instead, we took our chances with an online ticket broker, Viagogo, and had them delivered to our hotel. It was a nerve-wracking four weeks while we waited to see if the tickets would indeed show up, but they were waiting for us when we checked in at the Hotel Miro and the seats were fantastic. Front row. They were very expensive, but worth it.

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Not surprisingly, the people of Bilbao make a whole day of the soccer game. We saw people heading towards the 4 pm game at around 10 am. We left our hotel at around 11:30 and headed to Calle Licenciado Poza for pinxtos and drinks.

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We saw this guy from our hotel window heading to the game.

The entire neighborhood was draped in red and white Athletico bunting and every bar was flying the Athletico flag. We stopped at bar after bar—everything ranging from super chic steel and chrome numbers, to older establishments with plexiglass protecting their pintxos—and the whole vibe was very festive. Since they don’t serve beer or alcohol at the stadium (a widespread European rule that I’m not particularly fond of), things get pretty tipsy on the streets beforehand.

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That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of families out and about. We particularly enjoyed one kid who sat next to us and just inhaled two bowls of the tiniest little garlicky snails we’d ever seen. They were miniscule, but this kid was pulling them out of their tiny shells like he was a machine.

We bought our traditional (and overpriced) team garb from a small shop right outside the stadium. We try to go to a soccer game every time we go to Europe and now have a pretty impressive collection of scarves (for me) and baseball hats (for XFE). I also might have accosted a group of young American students I happened to overhear on our way in as if they were our long-lost relatives. What can I say? I was carried away by the many glasses of 1 Euro tintos and the excitement of game day.

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Finally, we made our way into the Cathedral. The atmosphere inside the stadium was electric. European men, I’ve observed, are very, very demonstrative at soccer games. They cheer wildly and cry and throw their hands up in disgust and hug each other. It’s a pretty impressive display. On that particular day, the home team beat the Sevilla visitors 2-0, so it was mostly cheers.

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No cheers for the broken stadium chair, though. Those wimpy EU chairs are not made for American butts. (To be fair, this is not the first stadium chair we’ve ever broken. We leave a trail of butt destruction)

As we marched out of the stadium, carried along by the exuberant crowd into the neighborhood streets, I decided I liked Bilbao very, very much indeed. And then I went into a bar and had another glass of tinto. Somewhere there was a very non-Spanish kebab calling my name.

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Spain Does Not Suck

Hola chicas (y, un solo chico, possiblimente)! Como estamos? I’m great! And back from a fabulous vacation in Northern Spain.

Toons wants to go

Petunia really wanted to go. She’s Calico, which is kinda close to Catalonian, so she thinks she should go to Spain. In the photo above, she is sitting on my travel binder.

Oh, do you not know about the travel binder? This is a binder with all the emails exchanged with hotels and all the reservations and hotel and restaurant information we might need. Also, multiple maps for getting from point a to point b. Yes, it’s a bit anal. But it has come in handy. For example, the scuba outfitter in Australia had waived our guide fees because they had to move us to a different boat. Of course, the people actually on the boat had no record of this. So, out came the travel binder with all the emails. Done.

We had no problems whatsoever in Spain and we did not need the travel binder. And, since we had GPS, everything went smoothly.

Guggenheim. Bilbao.
Guggenheim. Bilbao.

The whole trip was pretty perfect. Even the weather cooperated. I had looked up the weather report for the week (and included it in the itinerary in the travel binder – my anal-abilities really do have no limits). The reports said it was supposed to be rainy and kinda cold every day. Highs only in the mid-50s, supposedly. The only time it rained was the first couple of days in Bilbao. Other than that, perfect weather.

Some highlights:

Discovering two new (to me) clothing stores called Cortefiel and Sfera. I picked up a few cute things at each of them. Shopping was how XFE kept me from falling down asleep on my first jet-lagged evening in Bilbao.

Pintxos. Holy tiny deliciousness. These are little bite-sized appetizers, like little open sandwiches and yummy little fried balls of awesomeness. And these things are just laying out at all the bars and you just help yourself. They’re these little works of art. So, so inventive. We pretty much ate them everyday, the entire trip. The very best, in our estimation, were at a place in San Sebastian called La Cuchara de San Telmo. We ate there twice our last day and it was unbelievable.

Pintxos in Bilbao, Spain
Our first night in Bilbao and the first of many, many pintxos.

Two Michelin-star dinners, including a very, very odd one at Miramon Arbelaitz in San Sebastian. It was in a very industrial type area (sorta like Reston), so they do a pretty brisk lunch business. We found the restaurant and went in for our 9 pm reservation. The place was entirely empty. And it stayed that way through our entire tasting dinner. They basically opened the restaurant for us. It was fantastic food at a really good value, but so, so awkward. I just kept wondering why they didn’t just tell us they weren’t taking bookings for that night.

Marques de Riscal with Elciego
At Marques de Riscal with Elciego in the background.

I’ll have some more posts in the coming days, including a description of some of the wine tours in Rioja, the hotels we luxuriated in, and probably some more pintxos.