What I Learned About Africa the First Time Around (and Why We’re Going Back)

I uttered what I think might go down in history as the most bougie phrase ever known to mankind last week.

“Weeeeell, last time we were in Africa, we stayed at…..”

I said it not once, but TWICE while catching up with friends, both of whom probably immediately regretted asking me what big exciting trip we had coming up.

My manpanion/life-partner XFE and I have become known as “those people” in our own individual circles—the couple who are always planning their next big trip. Finagling airline partnerships and air miles to upgrade to first class and work in the longest possible layovers on a multi-stop ticket, cashing in hotel points and free resort nights to stay in ridiculously luxurious rooms, relentlessly researching destinations and options and meticulously planning where we’re going to spend our time and money.

Our next big trip is a bit different. It’s XFE’s 40th birthday and there was only really one place he wanted to spend it, regardless of airline miles (we were able to use plenty of those), hotel points (nope, none of those being used this trip) or cost (yikes)—on safari in Africa.

This is not our first time in Africa. We actually went to South Africa for my birthday in March 2014, which is why I was able to say something as bougie as, “Well, the last time we were in Africa, we stayed at….”

elephant bud

Of course, with our next trip to Africa only three weeks away, I’ve been thinking a lot about that last trip.

South Africa was never really on my travel bucket list. As I’ve said before, I’m pretty risk adverse, and well, Africa seemed a bit risky, a bit unstable.

IMG_1355
Speaking of risk, I do not recommend ingesting the priced-to-move ostrich bitong, unless you want other parts of your body to also move. (Not mine: I learned my lesson about cured meats from the Great Northern Italian Food Poisoning of 2011. XFE, however…..)

Sure, I’m a huge animal lover and intellectually, at least, I’d like to see animals in the wild, but again, being risk adverse, I always worry something bad might happen. I have a huge amount of respect for animals in the wild and would not want to do anything that might set them off. And who the hell knows what might set them off? I have a lunatic house cat who meows at walls, corners and sometimes electrical sockets. No idea why.

IMG_1573.JPG
He is asleep, right? Like, really asleep, yes?

Plus, a lot of those animals in the wild look pretty dang skinny. I’ve been poor. I know what hunger feels like and when you’re hungry, you might just be willing to eat anything, including some stupid tourist distracted by their camera.

But it turns out, there was a whole lot I didn’t know about South Africa (shocker, I know).

Like, how much I would love beautiful, bustling, exciting Cape Town.

Cape Town collage

I also had no idea Cape Town had such a crazy good food scene. Like, really, really good.

IMG_1226.JPG
The Old Biscuit Mill where we had a couple of great meals.

Including probably my favorite meal ever at Test Kitchen. No big deal, just the best restaurant in Africa. No, seriously. Other, fancier people have said so, too. They even made broccoli super cool and delicious. BROCCOLI, people.

Test Kitchen collage

I didn’t know about South Africa’s amazing wine country (we only made it to Stellenbosch, but there’s also Franschhoek, Constantia Valley and Helderberg, among others).

Stellenbosch Collage

So much amazing wine.

SA Wine Collage

And so many really gorgeous hotels, especially our villa at the Clouds Estate.

Stellenbosch Hotel Collage.jpg

I didn’t know I’d be allowed to pet a cheetah (check that one off the life list).

IMG_1371
That’s my pudgy little pale hand on an actual young cheetah. Right there. I died.

I didn’t know about Sabi Sands, a 65,000 hectare private reserve bordering Kruger National Park. It’s very unique in that it’s privately owned by individual land owners/families.

Sabi Sands Collage

I didn’t know South Africa had places like the 5-star Savanna Lodge, where we stayed back in 2014.

Savanna Lodge Collage

I suspected–but didn’t know–that Africa had so many wonderful people like the staff at Savanna Lodge. We were treated like treasured family members (including a little post-game drive champagne party on the morning of my birthday).

IMG_1721.JPG

Or like our ranger Patrick and his nice gun-toting tracker friends who pointed out all the cool, dangerous animals and would protect you from said animals if necessary.

Patrick and friends Collage.jpg

The biggest revelation was the animals themselves, who aren’t really interested in eating stupid tourists at all when there are plenty of other, more tasty, less noisy food options available.

bored animal Collage

And actually would just really appreciate it if humans would leave them to their whole Circle of Life business.

Lion bros 2 Collage.jpg

In fact, they’d probably also appreciate it if humans would stop killing them into extinction.

Rhinos Collage
The African rhino (on the right) was our most elusive animal to find, mostly because they’ve been poached into near extinction. And we all know about elephant poaching.

So, we’re going back to South Africa. Sadly, we’re skipping Cape Town and Stellenbosch. And we weren’t able to book Savanna Lodge, despite planning this trip a year out (there is, understandably, quite the demand for their nine luxurious tent-suites).

We’re really excited to be staying five nights at Leopard Hills, another 5-star lodge in Sabi Sands.

Then we’re going on to another six nights of safari, this time in Tanzania, including stays in a glass-fronted tent suite at Lemala Kuria Hills and a bushtop tent at Serengeti Bushtops. We’ll finish up with four nights at the Manta Resort on Pemba Island, including a night in their underwater room. Yes, I said underwater room. The room is underwater.

Underwater Collage.jpg

It’s really an once-in-a-lifetime trip. But, for the second time.

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.

Croatia 117

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.

Croatia 122

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.

Croatia 114

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.

Croatia 124

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.

Our restaurants boat.
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.

Croatia 129

Croatia 128

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.

Croatia 130

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.

Croatia 131

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.

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.

Riscal

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?

Rioja: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Winemaking (and a teeny bit of actual drinking)

Our three-day visit to the Rioja wine route in Spain has made us experts at making wine.

IMG_6245

Prior to this trip, my personal sommelier XFE and I felt fully confident that after watching two seasons of Moonshiners, several tours of distilleries (including Jameson in Ireland) and quite a few breweries (mostly in Colorado), and probably a total of a hundred wineries on three continents, we were conversant in the basics of turning a grain or fruit into a fermented adult beverage.

When planning our trip to the Rioja region, we ran into a wrinkle that we’ve actually run into before. Spain (like other parts of Europe) requires advance bookings for visits to their wineries. Fine. But in most cases, you can’t just go in for a tasting. You have to do a tour of the facilities.

Now, as I mentioned, we go on a lot of winery visits. We go out to Virginia wineries twice a year to taste the latest vintages and stock our wine closet. We’ve been to Napa and Sonoma. We’ve been to Northern Italy. We’ve been to the Barossa region of Australia. We’ve done many, many tours. This is not our first wine rodeo.

So being required to go on tour after tour after tour where there’s actually only a tiny bit of variance in the process (hmmm, you use American oak barrels instead of French oak? Wow.) just so we can have a tiny taste of two of your least popular wines? It’s excessive. In no instance were the wines served as good as wines we subsequently bought and tasted.

My suggestion? I’d rather hear more about the wine itself. What notes should I look for? Which specific ones are available for sale in the US (since the wineries won’t ship)? How long should we store it if we buy it? How is this one different from this one? That kind of stuff.

Nevertheless, we made reservations for tours at four facilities: Bodega Lopez de Heredia in Haro; Bodega Baigorri in Samaniego; Marques de Riscal in Elciego; and Bodega Ysios in Laguardia. Our mid-November trip was around two-to-six weeks after harvest and bottling (depending on the facility), so things were definitely quiet and reservations were easy to arrange.

We started our trip with a pleasant morning drive to Haro, about an hour and a half south of Bilbao. The countryside was beautiful, with steep cliffs of iron on each side of the road and early morning fog burning off.

IMG_6218

Haro is one of those small old Spanish towns that has one road entering it, and Lopez de Heredia was one of the first spots right off the road. You couldn’t miss it. Well, and the modern decanter shaped tasting room building also gave it away.

IMG_6222

You see, the big thing in the Rioja region is to have some fancy-schmancy architect build your facility or tasting room. In the case of Lopez de Heredia, the tasting room was designed by an Iraqui-British architect, Zaha Hadid.

The tasting room is the only nod to modernity at Lopez de Heredia. They are extremely proud of their adherence to the old ways of doing things, using many of the traditional methods they’ve honed over the last 130-plus years to make their Vina Tondonia. They make their own barrels and have an onsite cooperage, a source of great pride for our lovely young tour guide. And, in case you were wondering, they use American oak.

IMG_6233

We also got a peek at some of their very creepy underground storage vaults where bottles of wine were just coated with cobwebs and dust. You could not make out a single label. In many cases, you couldn’t even tell that they were bottles. Our tour guide explained that killing the spiders would be environmentally insensitive since they provide a necessary service of eating other pests. The amount of post-harvest wine gnats floating in the air would seem to suggest—to me at least—that the spiders were not holding up their end of the deal, and just maybe, we could break out a feather duster and tidy up a bit.

IMG_6242

At Heredia, we tasted crianzas, reservas and gran reservas – terms which refer to how long the wines have been aged. They were all very, very good and were bargain priced, although that did us no good since they don’t ship to the U.S. Heredia, like other wineries in Rioja, uses a U.S. distributor, which means you can’t get all of their wines, and the staff at the wineries don’t know which ones you can get. Quite frustrating. We ended up buying a bottle to drink, and a small dessert wine to take home.

IMG_6243

Haro has 19 or so wineries, but we had only made reservations at Heredia, which had been recommended by the guy at our favorite local wine store. There was, however, a tasting room right next door to Heredia that we had read about during our research – Bodegas Roda. As promised, it was small and to the point. You could taste Roda wines and even their olive oil, which we did.

IMG_6247

We then headed down the street to Bodegas Torre Muga, which is a very large and modern operation that, quite wisely, has a wine bar where you can sit and try a flight of wines without going through the tour business. It was here that we made a very odd discovery: although the Rioja region is deservedly known for its wonderful reds, the whites were just as good, if not sometimes better. This was true at Muga, which had a wonderful blanco that we fell in love with.(They also had some of the best buttery crackers there, which I. Tore. Up.)

IMG_6248

Tomorrow: Wine bankruptcies, the role of gravity in winemaking, and why you should not choose a winery based on a cool, architecturally interesting building.

The Gas Man Cometh (and Yet, We Still Have No Working Stove)

This weekend was a weekend of promise. The promise of a completion of our sweet abode. The weekend where everything remaining on the new homestead punch list was going to be checked off with a satisfying finality. Alas, when homeowners make plans, the Contractor Gods laugh.

Yep, this dude is laughing at us.

There wasn’t much left, really. We needed speakers installed, walls painted, and a gas line put in for our stove.

We finally had an electrician come and install speakers  throughout the lower level (which, of course, took longer than promised and involved much more damage to our walls than described). But, by Thursday evening, we had the television and speakers up on the wall, a speaker installed in the kitchen ceiling and an outdoor speaker. It was, despite the holes in our walls, a very beautiful thing. Because it meant we could paint the lower level and be done.

The world’s cutest non-professional contractor XFE spent the next couple of days patching the holes in the walls and prepping for paint. In the meantime, I went and ran a race. The Clarendon 10k, which is a very nice race, mostly downhill. Really, it’s downhill and they give you a metro pass to get back up the hill to the start line. Brilliant.

We looked pretty fast before the race started.

The amazingly awesome pacer that I am, I started off way too fast and almost died. So I ended up walking way more than I wanted to. Particularly the last two miles. It was truly pathetic. Especially since I had run 6.25 miles earlier that week without stopping at all and felt great.

This is Taylor. She decided to bring the sexy back to running. It was her first 10K and she totally kicked my ass. Probably because of that aerodynamic shirt. Less wind resistance.

Here are my splits, which really tell the story:

  • Mile 1: 9:24
  • Mile 2: 9:08
  • Mile 3: 10:03
  • Mile 4: 10:54
  • Mile 5: 11:36
  • Mile 6: 11:56

I really pulled it out for the last quarter mile at 11:48. My total pace of 10:34. Not horrible, but not what I had been hoping for. Luckily, there was beer. Lots and lots of beer.

Look at the triumphant yet sweaty faces. Good times

(You can’t tell, but I have blue tape over the Nike swoosh as I continue my one woman protest against the company that hired back Michael Vick. I couldn’t bear to throw out my UT shirt, which is literally, the last Nike item I now own.)

I moseyed home at around 3 pm and saw this going on outside my house.

That’s right! After 2 months of living here, we were finally getting our gas line for our stove. We applied for the line right after we moved in, but the gas department around here is slower than Sunday’s Emmy’s broadcast, so they were just getting around to putting it in.

But, of course, after tearing up the road and trampling my flowers, they realized they didn’t have a welder on duty and could not complete the task (XFE saved most of the flowers and replanted them, for which I’m very grateful. But my geraniums look pretty trod upon).

On Sunday, we needed to get out of the house so our real-non-XFE contractor could come in and paint our walls. XFE really, really wanted to paint the place himself, but I convinced that we didn’t want to leave such an important task to our inexperienced paint rollers and it was worth the money to get it done right. So we bought two cans of paint, moved the furniture to the center of the room, and headed out to our favorite winery for lunch and some wine shopping.

We returned home about 8 hours later and our contractor told us that things had gone just so doggone well that he hadn’t even needed to get into the second can of paint. This caused our collective eyebrows to rise in disbelief. Sure enough, a few hours later, after everything had dried, we started noticing spots that weren’t quite completely covered. The morning sunlight revealed even more uneven coverage areas.

So let’s go through the items we expected to be done with by this point:

  • Speakers – Check. Done and check.
  • Painted walls – Nope. Need to be redone.
  • Gas for stove – Nope. Still waiting.

We did, however, find a use for all that heavy-duty construction gear parked outside our house.  This is what happens when you leave your large moving equipment unattended.

(BTW, there are no pictures of the walls nor the speakers because XFE wants to save some surprises for the big unveil at Porktober. Yes, you read right: Porktober is happening again.)

Weekend in Pictures

Very good weekend. We were waaaay social. Like we actually talked to other people. And hung out with them! I’m sure they’ll never call us again.

We actually went out Friday night for dinner, Saturday afternoon for drinks and cornhole, and Sunday we went to a vineyard for the afternoon, just the two of us. We also battled squirrels and planted our THIRD tomato plant of the season. At this rate, we’ll have tomatoes by August. And, we now have the trashiest, most metally front yard ever.

Great French bistro, amazing foie gras with figs.
Desert wine. Why not?
Our roses.
Cornhole at the Rock n Roll Hotel. Man, I suck at that game. I think the score was like 102 to 16

Hefweizzen at the wonderfully named Star of Shamrock (Jewish – Irish place).
Tomahawk steak for dinner (brontosaurus size)
Since it was a large 2-pounder, we could cook it nice and slow and get a really good crust on it. Probably the best steak ever.
Winery humor. Bought a couple of bottles of white, including a bottle we sat on the winery patio and enjoyed. The weather was PERFECT.
So, we’re still having problems with tomato vandalism. We’re sure it’s squirrels. I wanted to give up, but XFE is personally peeved, so this is how we’re dealing with it. We planted some more items today and then created these metal thunderdomes. Bring it, stupid squirrels.