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One of our last adventures in California was to go Kayaking at La Jolla Shores. My wonderful sweet friend Sarah had just moved back to California from Brussels, and we kidnapped her on something like her fourth day back in the country to come stay with us and give our arms a good work out on the sea…

We bought a disposable waterproof camera to use which meant that for the first time in yeeeears, we a) couldn’t see any of the photos as we were taking them and b) had to actually go to a shop to get them developed. How far we’ve come. :)

I actually love their hazy blurred quality, because it gives so much atmosphere to the photos. We had so so much fun this day. It wasn’t quite as scary or hard work as I had anticipated and there is just something about actually be out on the water which is so far more wonderful than just standing on the shore.

We spent a sunny October day in Luxembourg city yesterday and it was the perfect weather for exploring this little capital city…

Who holds the map when you are in an unfamiliar place? Do you brilliantly accept all responsibility for delivering your family/friends to their final destination or does everyone dive-tackle you for the map at the merest suggestion of a route??

I hold the map. Always. Or, if someone else insists on holding the map it takes all my energy to not look stressed. Because I like to know that we are going the right way. Getting lost is only fun if you are doing it on purpose :)

I am also the queen of research, so when we plan a trip somewhere, whether it’s a two week long holiday on the other side of the world or a weekend in a neighbouring city, I like to be well prepared. I find it helpful to have at least a couple of key things to do each day, with enough space to be flexible if the weather changes or you find something else more fun to do when you get there.

I thought it would be fun to tell you some of the ways I do my research:

  • Travel websites. Like Lonely Planet and Frommers. I used Frommers a lot when we went for our weekend trip to San Francisco and I especially liked that they have suggested itineraries mapped out for you. So if you’re in a hurry, this is a great place to start!
  • Blogs. I read a lot of blogs, and a lot of the ones I read will occasionally or regularly write about their home town or city. If it’s a place I am planning or hoping to visit, I gather their recommendations is a word document for future reference. So for recent examples, Elise who writes Enjoy it lives in San Diego, and Sharon at NYC Taught Me lives in, obviously, New York. And don’t forget to check the comments of the post where they give their tips, as other locals usually chime in with their own!
  • Recommendations. Friends and family are a great resource! Sometimes you don’t even know that a person has been to the place you’re heading to though, so here facebook (and I guess twitter too) can be great resources. I put out an “I’m going to NYC! Give me your best tips!” post on facebook and got reams of great responses from people who’d been before.
  • Google maps. This is one technique I just started using recently. You’ve probably noticed that Google maps have all those little signs marking (roughly) where restaurants, bars, attractions, shops are. This was surprisingly super useful when we were in New York. One evening we had no dinner plans but knew we’d be in the Meatpacking District after our visit to The Highline, so we opened up google, spotted nearby restaurants on the map and then googled them to find reviews (on Yelp mostly) and check the menu and prices. We could then go out with a list of two or three which looked good, and see which had walk-in space.

Doing this much advance research is not everyone’s preferred approach, but I love it. It helps me find enough places that we have an idea of what to do each day without losing space for spontaneity. When you’re actually there, that one street might look far more interesting to walk down than the one you had planned and then going with your gut instinct can open up a wealth of local treasures to explore! And finding the places that the locals love rather than just the tourist hot-spots, makes for a much more interesting trip.

I’m curious – what kind of traveler are you? Do you research everything or just jump in and start exploring?

In this whole detox diet we’re doing this month, there’s lots I could be missing. But cakes and pastries are coming top of the list. I almost cried over a brownie I couldn’t eat on Sunday! And going into this straight from New York where I made it my mission to hunt out delicious sweet treats, the break feels even harder…

First on my list of sweet destinations was Baked by Melissa. She runs four little cupcake stores in different spots in Manhattan but the twist is that these are all mini cupcakes. Really tiny. They all have their cake base, a wee bit of filling, the frosting and a topping. All in one little mouthful of deliciousness!

We bought six to try, all different. My favourite is tied between the mint choc chip and the smores cupcakes…

The next day after our brunch at Katz we kept walking south and found another bakery I had bookmarked weeks before: The Doughnut Plant. In case you hadn’t heard, doughnuts are the new pie, which was the new cupcake. Or something like that! (I’ve also heard that ice lollies are taking over again but I tend to think that was just a short summer reign – doughnuts will be back top with the autumn coolness).

The excitement on my face is almost scary.

We bought a pistachio glazed doughnut and a raspberry glazed doughnut, and ate half each. They were delicious! Light and fresh and just the right amount of chewy. They had another flavour called Creme Brulee, which happens to be my favourite dessert. I didn’t get that one though because it looked so small, but since then I’ve read reviews where everyone adores the creme brulee flavour, so maybe I need to make a return trip…

On our last morning in the city, we had brunch a few doors up from our guest house in Harlem, at Il Caffe Latte, and afterwards got a big slice of their red velvet cake to go. I love red velvet cake. It is very American, so I had never had it until a few years ago, when an American girl I new a little here in Brussels posted a recipe for red velvet cupcakes on her blog, and I had to try them. I made them for a Valentine’s Day event we did at an asylum seeker’s residential centre in our neighbourhood and they were a hit, and I’ve loved red velvet cake ever since!

We took our slice of deliciousness into the north part of Central Park, found a rock to sit on (they are plentiful there) and spent a wonderful last hour debriefing our wonderful summer, planning the weeks and months ahead and eating red velvet cake. It was the perfect way to end a very sweet trip.

What about you? Do you have favourite bakeries that you just have to visit when you’re in town?

So here’s what we did!

Day 1:

We stayed at the Indigo Arms Guest House in Harlem. It’s just two blocks from Metro 2/3 which is just fifteen minutes ride from Times Square. It was a perfect location and we’d definitely recommend it. It’s also very good value for New York.

Dinner: Our number one tip is MAKE RESERVATIONS! We were hoping to eat at The Little Owl restaurant that night but it was fully booked. Instead, we ate at Risotteria, a great little restaurant that specialises in gluten free pizzas and paninis and also has a great list of risottos.

Drinks: We went to Arthur’s Tavern on Grove Street, which has great live jazz music, and still had their Christmas decorations up.

Then Little Branch. You could walk past this bar twenty times without noticing it. After you go in and down the stairs, you find yourself in a tiny speak-easy style cocktail bar. The waiters wear waistcoats and mix you drinks based on your favourite liquor. I had some amazing concotion of fresh blackberries and tequila.

The entrance to Little Branch

On the way back to the guesthouse, we went via Times Square for the complusary night-time viewing. It really is staggeringly bright!


Day 2:

We started with brunch at the Barney Greengrass deli in the Upper Westside. He is the self-proclaimed ”King of Sturgeon”, so I ordered the scrambled eggs with sturgeon and smoked salmon which was divine. The bagels were also true New York bagels. The little cafe next to the deli looks like it hasn’t been decorated in the last 80+ years, which just adds to the charm!

Sightseeing: Top of the Rock, where we’d been promised the views were as good and the lines shorter than at the Statue of Liberty, was amazing, and not too many people to fight for ledge space with.

We also visited the Grand Central Terminal, St Patricks’ Cathedral, and picked up some yummy mini cupcakes from Baked by Melissa. We stopped for afternoon snacks and drinks at the Heartland Brewery where I sampled their seasonal pumkin ale – not too bad.

Evening: We had tickets for Wicked which was just fantastic! Definitely try and see a show when you’re in New York. You can get cheaper day-of tickets by going to the TKTS box office, but the big shows are usually all sold out so we’d booked Wicked in advance to be sure to get in.


Day 3:

Brunch: We went to Katz Deli after a recommendation, which is the site of the infamous orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally. It was fun to be eating in a film location you know so well (who else loves that movie?!). The brunch was not bad (we had eggs, sausage, fries and toast with coffee and OJ) but the waiters were downright rude. Maybe it’s part of the experience?

We spent a pleasant morning wandering through Chinatown, Little Italy, Nolita and Soho, doing some shopping on the way and picking up some delicious doughnuts from The Doughnut Plant with raspberry and pistachio glazes.

Evening: We went to The Chelsea Market and The High Line park that evening. We were there late because I’d been too sick earlier, and I’d love to go back again in the day time when everything was open and busy, but it was great to be there anyway.

We had dinner in the Meatpacking district at a restaurant called 5 Ninth which was very good.


Day 4:

Sightseeing: We headed out early to the Staten Island Ferry, and enjoyed the free ride across and back to see the Statue of Liberty and the great views of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Afterwards, we wandered up Wall Street and past the 9/11 Memorial, although we didn’t go in. Then we got some lunch in a restaurant that’s decor has got it into Elle Decor magazine, but whose food and service left quite a bit to be desired.

We walked the Brooklyn Bridge after lunch, getting the metro to the Brooklyn side so that we could walk it with Manhattan in our view, which is much more interesting than walking towards Brooklyn. There were a LOT of people on the bridge, so maybe going early in the morning would be better, but it was worth doing.

After the necessary afternoon nap, we went out to Little Korea for dinner at a BBQ restaurant called Miss Korea BBQ. We muddled through the not-having-any-idea-what-to-do and enjoyed a very good dinner with a pork dish and a beef dish both cooked in front of us by the young chefs.

We resisted (or rather, Rasmus refused) the karaoke on the fourth floor, and we headed instead for the Empire State Building. The tales of ridiculously long waits were all true. But the night views of city were wonderful and it was truly romantic to be at the top of such a famous building. I felt like Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle!


Day 5:

Our last day, we had a lovely brunch at a Harlem cafe, just three doors up from our guesthouse called Il Caffe Latte, which was a fun and busy little place. We got some of the Red Velvet cake to go and took a walk around Central Park before our shuttle came for the airport.

It was SUCH a good trip and there are a million more places on my list to visit and eat at and shop in. Seeing a little tiny bit of each part of the city has just wet my appetite for more. We’ll definitely be on the look out for cheap tickets back so feel free to tell me what I missed!

We LOVED New York.

We arrived late afternoon last Wednesday and immediately fell head over heels in love with the place. We’d found (eventually) a guest house in a brownstone corner house in Harlem that would not require us taking out a bank loan to pay for, and it was lovely. The tallest bed I have ever slept in making me feel like I was in the Princess and the Pea story. And a beautiful marble bathroom that I could have lived in.

Thanks to all the recommendations we got from people we had a packed four days of sightseeing, eating and drinking, and we managed to fit nearly everything we had planned in despite me having flu for three of the four days. I may have infected a large percentage of the city’s population, but I had a great time!

Here are some of the best moments in pictures, and tomorrow I’ll give you a bunch of links to all our favourite places, so if you go (GO! It’s amazing!) you can follow in our footsteps!

We’ve been back in Brussels a full 24 hours, most of which I have spent either in bed or on the sofa. If we’re friends on facebook, you might have heard that on the second day of our trip to New York, that four day holiday I have been planning for, oh, about four months, I got sick.

But I was in New York! So I refused to be sick. I told my body it was wrong and I was defying it. And each morning I medicated up and we went out exploring. And every day around 4pm I had to be half-carried back to our adorable Harlem guesthouse to sleep for a couple of hours before re-medicating and heading out for more night time adventures.

Because, people, it was New York.

Which is officially the coolest, most creative, most stylish, most quirky, most amazing city I have ever been in.

And before New York, we were also in Washington DC, Norfolk VA, we went kayaking in San Diego, visited an aircraft carrier, and hiked up the mountain behind our house.

Clearly I have a lot to catch you all up on from the last twenty days, but it may have to wait another day, because I am giving in to the flu fight, and curling up with cough drops and lots of fluids (including Schnapps by order of Rasmus) to watch chick-flicks and period costume dramas – the ultimate prescription when you are feeling poorly.

(picture sneakily taken by Rasmus on the Staten Island Ferry as I took a break from the excitement of being in NEW YORK to feel exhausted…)

Rasmus’ last day of work in the US is on Wednesday next week. Then we head to Virginia to visit old friends who used to live in Brussels, and then drive (possibly via DC, we’ll see) up to New York where we have a b&b room booked for four nights.

I already asked on facebook, but I thought I’d see who’s out there that reads this and is not my facebook friend. Because geez, if you’re following my life in this much depth, we should be facebook friends so go add me :)

Who has been to New York before?

What are your top three must-see/must-eat/must-experience tips?

I have spent the last few days trawling the internet for the best ideas and some of the hidden off the beaten track places that only native New Yorkers know about. Those are the kinda things we enjoy doing on holiday. Although, of course,  we will also make it to Time Square and find somewhere to take cheesy photos of the Empire State Building.

So fire away! My pen is poised and ready to take notes… :)

Despite the cloudy cold weather in San Francisco, we’d been promised that further north the clouds would part and summer would return. So we decided to spend our last day exploring the famous wine country north of the city. There are lots of tours and limo companies that will take you around, but for not a lot more we could hire a car and take ourselves around at our own pace. So we decided to go for the car, with the compromise to Rasmus not being able to drink as much wine being that we could get a convertible for the day…

I let Rasmus do the negotiations with the car rental guy who despite hard questioning typically managed to fool us into a deal that was not quite as good a deal as he had made out (Hands up who else detests and despises car rental companies?). But my ears pricked up when I heard him say, ”Oh, and your car is yellow? That’s not a problem, right?” To which I promptly burst out laughing.

Yes, we drove a yellow Chevy Camaro convertible. It was kinda awesome. While pausing at a traffic light back in the city, someone took a picture of us and then winked and gave me a thumbs up. :)

After stopping to take pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge, we made it to Sonoma County by eleven and stopped at our first vineyard of the day, the Gloria Ferrer estate which specialises in sparkling wines. Always start with champagne if you’re beginning your drinking before midday. The clouds hadn’t quite cleared but the view was lovely and we sipped champagne and made plans to own a vineyard one day…

With the sun breaking through the clouds we headed for Sonoma town and after picking up a perfect picnic from Whole Foods, we drove to the Bartholomew Winery, a small vineyard with a beautiful picnic area overlooking the vines. There we stayed and had lunch, took pictures in the vines and tried their wines, which were good enough that we bought a bottle to take home.

Finally in the afternoon we drove up the valley to the Benziger Winery, which is special because they produce “biodynamic” wines. Which is like one up from organic. It’s super organic and eco-friendly and earth-loving. We got a fun tractor and trailer ride around the vineyard with a really interesting man who told us all about their unique approach, which included (Dad, this is for you) planting special bushes to encourage the bats in to eat all the vine-munching bugs.

We left as the vineyard was closing for the day but we still had time before we had to be back at the airport so I took Rasmus on a roundabout tour of the back lanes of Sonoma County. It was stunningly beautiful, we had the wind in our hair and the sun on our faces and I doubt I could have felt more happy at that moment (and it didn’t all have to do with the amount of wine I’d drunk…)

Last week we flew up north to San Francisco. Rasmus had meetings in the Bay Area during the week so I amused myself in the hotel and got the train up to San Francisco one day to see the Asian Art Museum, which had a fascinating exhibit on Bali. I felt a little like I was back in Anthropology 101 class at Uni, learning about funeral rituals and their meaning, about shadow puppets and cricket fighting and other cultural activities. I loved studying anthropology because I was always so curious to find out ”what are they doing and why are they doing it?” Call it natural nosiness. Either way, it was fun to relive it for an afternoon on my own in the city.

Two days later and Rasmus’ meetings were done and we headed in to the city. We’d rented a small garden room in a beautiful town house in the Haight belonging to two elderly gentlemen who had lived in the city since the end of the Second World War. I’d have loved to have a chance to sit down and ask them a thousand questions about how the city has changed in the last sixty plus years!

What we hadn’t anticipated was just how cold it would be. After lunch at a great Italian on Cole Street, we wandered through the Golden Gate park but only got as far as the Japanese Tea Garden before deciding that heading downtown to do some shopping for warm clothes was a far more attractive idea! Once I’d found a thick cardigan and Rasmus had a jacket we were much better equipped to explore the city.

We wandered through China Town and bought some flowering jasmine tea in a wee shop and then hiked our way to the top of Nob Hill, which, let me tell you, is quite the climb! Rasmus snapped two photos of me at the top – the ”I’m great!” face and the true ”Phew, I’m knackered” face…  The views from the top were almost fantastic but the clouds were so low that afternoon you couldn’t see too much. On our way back down the hill then we found an English style pub and stopped for a couple of drinks to warm up!

The following morning dawned cloudy again but with small patches of blue that gave us hope. We got out early and caught the bus all the way down to the Ferry Building for the morning farmer’s market. This was one thing that was top of my San Francisco to-do list, since all the coolest San Franciscan bloggers make regular morning trips here to buy armfuls of fresh vegetables and then cook extraordinary meals out of them. Unfortunately we didn’t have the kitchen or time for the great meals and I didn’t spot any famous bloggers, despite looking out for them, but we did enjoy wandering around and then got the most amazing rotisserie pork sandwich which we sat eating on the by-now-sunny waterfront overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge.

After our pork breakfast we walked the Embarcadero in the direction of Fisherman’s Wharf. Halfway there we spotted a very handsome tall ship tied up on the dock and went to explore. It turned out it was the Russian ship Pallada which was on a trip around the Pacific. The Russian sailors let us onboard to explore the ship and read the many posters about how great Yuri Gagarin was.

We made it to Pier 39 and spent a fun ten minutes sitting with our coffee watching the sea lions fight over board space and got our first view of the Golden Gate Bridge. After some Mexican food for lunch, we joined the long queue for the cable car, behind a British girl who could have won the world championship in complaining. The joy of having learnt my husband’s relatively uncommon mother tongue is that we can in turn complain about how complaining our neighbours are without them having any idea… ;)

By some amazing stroke of luck, we managed to get the best spots on the cable car – I had a seat on the side right at the front facing out, and Rasmus stood hanging on to the rail in front of me making me not a wee bit nervous for him. The queue might have been long but the ride was worth the wait. Did you know the cable cars are the only moving national monument in the country? The hills it rides up and down were so steep and the views were incredible. At each junction it would pause to let a few more people squeeze on, then ring the bell, pull the brake and off we went again.

In the evening we headed back to the Haight and got some noodles at a small restaurant there, surrounded by old hippies, young (high) travellers and trendy students…

We got up early again on Sunday (we don’t let ourselves rest on holidays – there’s things to be seen and explored!) and headed to the airport to pick up our hire car… but more on that fun story tomorrow :)