Travel

Adventures in Alaska – Our One Week Alaskan Road Trip!

Alaska seems to be a top Bucket List item. Since going to our northernmost state, I’ve had a constant stream of people saying it’s one of their must-travel spots. And with good reason! I can echo the sentiment that Alaska is a sight to behold.

What’s great is, despite its impressive size, you can see a lot in one week. We hiked glaciers, kayaked past icebergs, and hiked 11 miles to visit a frozen lake. Oh – and did I mention the sun never set? Not even once?

~2am out the window of our Airbnb

Alaska is one of those places where every day provides the opportunity for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and I’d love to share the moments!

Planning and Choosing Alaska

Marjorie and I chose to go to Alaska over the summer solstice – which I highly, highly recommend. To be honest, it wasn’t a conscious decision. Marjorie’s goal of running a race in every U.S. state meant we had to plan around one of their races and we chose the Mayor’s Marathon Race (we did the 5k, we’re not that crazy). It ended up being a great time to visit. The lack of sunset meant planning the long drives of the road trip was easy – no worrying about driving in the dark and watching for moose. It also provides a daily reminder of just how different life up there can be.

Because of our race and the timing we had, we ended up bracketing our race day with travel. This made some of our options limited since we knew we would fly into Anchorage, be tourists, drive back to Anchorage for the race, then have a couple more tourist days, before going back to Anchorage to fly out. Most people won’t want to do this trajectory since it’s a lot of out and back, but it worked splendid for us.

In doing this, we had to make an important decision – to Denali or not to Denali? You’ll find when you research Alaska it’s almost always the first item mentioned outside of Anchorage. But we struggled with the logistics. The main activity is a very long bus tour in the hope of seeing some wildlife and maybe Denali peak (apparently that’s a slim chance). We just couldn’t stomach that kind of tour so we actually chose to skip Denali. It was a bold move but one we are confident was the right choice for us. So – what did we do instead?

Day One: Travel!

Depending on where you are coming from, it’s almost certainly a long flight to Alaska. We landed in Anchorage at the eye-watering time of 11pm after a 6 hour direct flight from Chicago. It’s an easy flight, but a long one, and given the three hour difference we were dead on our feet. And yet – it was still light outside! The lack of sunset does wonders for that second wind and we managed to get our car and head to our hotel (nothing special, we opted for the familiar and stayed at the Four Points Sheraton. No complaints and a great option if you are looking for a chain hotel in Anchorage).

Day Two: Glacier Hiking

We wasted no time on our Alaskan Adventure dawdling. The next morning we were up and out early, stopping only at the Fred Meyer’s to stock up on snacks and Starbucks for a caffeine hit. Unsurprisingly, given Anchorage has fewer than 300,000 people, there were not a lot of options especially before 8am so we went with the familiar and hit the road.

Matanuska Glacier

About 2-2.5 hours east of Anchorage you’ll find the Matanuska Glacier – it’s a ridiculously easy drive with a very well maintained road that doesn’t even have fearsome switchbacks. We signed up to do the Ice Fall Trek with Mica Guides and it was perfect for us. Our guide Kendall was kind and authentically passionate about the glacier.

The tour completely exceeded our expectations – every time I thought we were turning to go back we were instead heading down another crevasse or exploring another section of the glacier. You spend a ton of time in your crampons and are truly hiking on ice for over half of your tour. It was a great workout but not exhausting or treacherous.

The views are out of this world – maybe other people know this but my own glacier knowledge being slim to none I had no idea I would see the vibrant blue of the truly cold and dense ice – or the deceptively black ice just an inch blow the silty sludge. It was cold and a bit rainy and four hours of a truly glorious adventure.

Blessedly, at the Mica Guides stop there is an adorable little hut that serves decent coffee and ice cream (that sounds sooo good but sadly we didn’t get to partake in). Even if you aren’t doing a tour (though you absolutely should) if you are headed to Valdez it’s a great stopping point.

After we changed into dry clothes and caffeinated, we hopped back in the car for the remaining 4 hours of our drive to Valdez. While long, the drive truly didn’t feel cumbersome. The whole way you’re gazing out at miles of untouched forest or watching the approaching picturesque mountains. The last hour-ish in particular is amazing as you wind through the valley between mountains with huge and amazing waterfalls cascading right next to you.

waterfall next to the highway – nbd

Truthfully, Valdez is tiny and not the largest tourist hub so there are not a lot of accommodation options. We did stay with an Airbnb which served the purpose. It was clean, convenient, and had a hot shower but wasn’t otherwise a spot that would call for glowing reviews.

Day 3: Glacier Kayaking

Marjorie and I figured – when in Alaska, do all the glaciers. So, not even a day after we got off the Matanuska Glacier, we found ourselves decked out in very attractive rain gear and on a boat headed to another one of Alaska’s famous Glaciers – Columbia. We did this trip with Pangaea Adventures and definitely recommend them. Great crew.

This was the only day on our week long journey where it didn’t rain and we were so glad for it. We couldn’t have asked for better weather – mid 60s and clear sunny skies greeted us for the entire boat right out to the glacier and ice fields. It’s not a short ride – 2/2.5 hours – but it’s epic. I stood almost the entire way at the back of the boat, watching and enjoying the scenery.

The mountains were amazing and we always stayed close so the water was calm. Getting closer and closer to the glacier was so much fun as we started to go through the ice fields – huge chunks of iceberg just chilling next to your boat was something to behold.

And that was before our excursion even started! We pulled up on a remote little beach, got a few kayaking instructions, and then were off.

We were able to paddle around the ice, occasionally picking up pieces and chew them. It was trippy how you could eat fresh untouched glacier water, even though it had been floating in salt water. Every ten minutes or so you’d hear the glacier calve, sometimes seeing the billowing aftermath of snow as it avalanched down.

After an hour or so we stopped to eat our packed lunch and then back into the boats for more kayaking. It was a challenging but not strenuous adventure – it’s a lot of time kayaking but the water was calm and beautiful so it made for easy rowing.

The whole ride home to Valdez I gazed out at the water, the glacier, and the mountains. All I could think about was how amazing and unique it was to be there.

Day 4: Road Trip back to Anchorage

Having hit everything we wanted to (and really everything there is in that petite little town) we left early and made our way back to Anchorage. A six hour road trip, that you previously drove, is typically daunting but I’m not joking when I say it really didn’t feel long at all.

Despite driving in quite a bit of rain, it was still an easy and beautiful drive. A minor moose sighting and a lot of time to chat, sure, but we still pulled over at a few different areas to get amazing pictures.

If you are taking this trek, it’s well worth pulling off in Palmer. We got lucky because of our timing to find an adorable little outdoor market/fair near the train station. We were able to wander and found a truly delightful little bookstore, Fireside Books. It was the only bookstore of note on our entire trip (and we went to literally all the ones we could find in ALL our locations!). It had a great selection and an author signing out front too (I’ll add the book once I read it and can recommend it!) .

We got into Anchorage early enough to check in and then lay around, waiting for a break in the weather. It eventually did lighten enough for us to have dinner at 49th State Brewing and their rooftop. It’s a highly rated spot and well worth it – the place is huge with plenty of outdoor seating. The menu is perhaps too big and therefore all the food is good but not great. Still, the beer options were solid and it was a great spot to sit.

Anchorage itself, though, doesn’t have a lot to offer. Marjorie phrased it well – it’s a city with an identity crisis. There’s a block that feels hipster/up-and-coming, next to a block of random and halfhearted businesses, next to a block that has a significant homeless population. Any downtown/walking area is approximately 2 or 3 block square and that’s being generous. Still, there are some key establishments that we did enjoy, but otherwise it’s not a city worth spending significant time in.

Day 5: 5k and Drive to Seward

Our 5k started, to our irritation being morning people, at 11am. We spent the morning dozing and watching TV in our hotel room, desperately hoping the driving rain would peter out in time for our race. It did not.

Still, the 5k was well designed and took us on a lovely little path. Mostly flat too! But by the end our feet were soaked and I was reminded of how I don’t mind a 20-30 minute jog but something about the 5k is a mild form of torture.

Our late check out (thanks to Marjorie’s Marriott status, holllllla) gave us time to shower before we had to move on. We had a late breakfast/lunch at Snow City Cafe and then got on the road to Seward.

Now that is a delightful little drive. Just over two hours you hug coast the whole way. Easy and beautiful with a bunch of pull overs. Alaska is funny that way – it’s literally always beautiful and so it got to the point where we’d see another “scenic overlook” spot and purposefully pass it up. How many more amazing panoramas did we need, really?

A very keenly placed sign worked vey well and we were able to stop and buy fudge at a little hamlet called, no joke, Moose Pass. If you are going to Seward, do not hesitate to stop there. The owners were hilarious in that small town way and their fudge was legit.

Google maps made it easy for us to find our best accommodations yet – a true yurt run by Sourdough Sue (fun fact, a “sourdough” is someone whose been in Alaska for 30+ years. She does not make bread… much to my disappointment). That was the only thing that lessened our stay, however. The yurt was amazing. It was the definition of glamping and I loved it so much. She even turned on our oil-burning stove for us because we were not going to even try to touch that thing. Indoor plumbing, a cute little porch, and the beds were comfy. Highly, highly recommend a stay here.

Day 6: Hiking to Lost Lake

We woke up to a downpour which, I had to admit, sounded SO COOL on our yurt roof. It did not, however, bode well for our pre-paid trip with Exit Glacier Tours to hike to the Lost Lake. Given all the glacier experiences we already had, we decided to have a more authentic hike while in Seward and we really enjoyed this getaway. It’s clearly one of the lesser booked trips and we almost had a private tour as we were only joined by one other woman from Colorado. Janice, our guide, was more like an Airbnb host just giving us a tour of her favorite running trail. It was fun and we didn’t see anyone until about mile 8 of our 11 mile in-and-out adventure.

This hike was the perfect difficultly level. It’s a great distance – just at that peak of being “oh my god are we done yet?” and it has a good elevation increase but nothing too steep all at once. Trekking poles were super helpful, both as things got challenging (there were a few massive snow piles we had to climb too – even that late in June) and also just as something to hold.

The top of the mountain is legit out of The Sound of Music and for the last half of our hike I was humming Edelweiss.

The whole time our guide warned us we might have to turn back sooner if the snow was going to get too deep. But we pushed on and finally made it to the Lost Lake lookout. We watched as her face fell, a look of realization and horror crossing it.

“It’s frozen! I’m so sorry!”

Because, of course, if it had been such a chilly spring so far that the snow was still an obstacle, it wasn’t surprising the lake would still be covered in snow – and not the bright, shining blue that usually drew people in. She looked so worried that we would be disappointed but I was personally ecstatic. I love the idea that we got to see something that most people didn’t. It felt pretty badass to say we hiked as much as we did in the snow to see the Lost Lake still frozen over.

The frozen Lost Lake

By the time we made it by the rain had started again (we managed to avoid the worst of the weather while hiking, thank goodness) so we enjoyed the sound of the rain in our yurt until we headed into Seward for some takeout and spent the rest of the night chilling.

Day 7: Driving back to Anchorage and heading home

The fun, or not fun, thing about Alaska, depending on your perspective, is that it seems they arrange the majority of their flights to leave and arrive very late in the day. Is this just a seasonal thing due to the lack of sunset? I don’t know. But, for good or evil, our flight out of Anchorage wasn’t until 11pm on Monday night. So we had plenty of time for more tourism before heading home.

The day finally opened up clear and we were able to explore Seward properly on Monday morning. Unfortunately most of the cute shops of the downtown area were closed (although this one, aptly named Alaska Shop, was open and was actually exceptional for souvenirs – and I don’t usually buy souvenirs). But we took a walk down by the harbor. It’s an amazing walk and well worth it for the views.

We timed our departure so we could arrive at Whittier and experience North America’s longest tunnel. It was $13 and worth it if only because the whole experience was trippy and thoroughly quirky. It takes approximately 7 minutes to drive through the single-lane tunnel and it’s simultaneously a total normal experience and one where you can’t help contemplating how much oxygen you need to live and what would happen if an earthquake happened, like, rightthissecond.

We made it through to the admittedly halfhearted little alcove of Whittier. It’s a bizarre place where everyone lives in one dorm-like building and there is one half-street with seafood restaurants. That being said, the one where we ate was quite tasty (Swiftwater Seafood Cafe – no website, but you can’t miss it) and the view was gorgeous. It was a fun little stop on our way back to Anchorage.

When we made it back to the city we went to a use bookstore that was so disappointing I won’t even name it and then waited for a very long time for a table at a ridiculously busy pizza place, Moose’s Tooth. Given that we had literally hours to kill before our flight we didn’t mind the wait and I’m so glad we weren’t scared off. We had a cauliflower crush pizza that literally blew my mind. I forced Marjorie to stop eating it because I was convinced it was gluten, called the waitress back, and watched her (very-well deserved) smug expression as she assured us that it was, in fact, cauliflower and that we weren’t the only people to be tricked. It was the best pizza I think I’ve ever had and ultimately a solid send off for Alaska.

Overall

Our trip to Alaska was a quick one with a lot of driving but we really enjoyed the entire endeavor. Valdez and Seward are amazing towns that gave a great perspective of small town life in Alaska. They were both charming and well worth the time to visit. The tours were all phenomenal and ones we would highly recommend. Anchorage, of course, was an easy jumping off point but not one to spend any more time in than necessary. Even though less than a week isn’t usually worth it for a 6 hour flight we felt like we were able to see and do so much in that time.

Food and Ice Cream

Anchorage

  • 49th State Brewing – great option for dinner with good beer and plenty of outdoor seating (rooftop with a view, yes please!) Located in the only part of Anchorage we found that might be called cute and/or walkable.
  • Snow City Cafe – this place definitely gets busy but we were able to get takeout and eat at one of their outdoor seats as the skies cleared. Good food and super adorable interior (so maybe rainbows!). Great lattes too.
  • Moose’s Tooth Pub & Pizzeria – this pizza 100% blew my mind. It was exceptionally good. Go there FOR SURE while you are in Anchorage.
  • WooHoo! Ice Cream – Cute little spot with some unique flavors. In a strip mall with other very literally named businesses. It gave me a chuckle.

Valdez

  • The Potato – we went were both nights because the food was excellent and they have cute outdoor seating. Highly recommend. If you are gluten free they’ll just replace your wrap or bun with a bed or fries. YES PLEASE.
  • Northern Treats – even though this is soft serve, it’s quite good. It’s also, literally, the only ice cream in Valdez so, you know, can’t be too picky. But still, it’s worth it and it’s adorable.
  • Latte Dah Espresso – seriously, what is not to love about this place? The name (I mean come ON), the artwork, the cute seating décor …and the drinks! Great specialty latte options. I was sold.

Seward

  • 13 Ravens Coffee & Books – coffee was decent and the location adorable, but don’t expect to actually get a book…
  • The Lone Chicharron Taqueria – surprisingly excellent tacos, we really considered eating there twice.
  • Red’s Burgers – really great reviews and a very long wait for what ended up being pretty normal burgers. Not disappointing necessarily, just not quite as the level I expected given all the rave reviews. Super cute establishment though in the bus!
  • Sweet Darlings – truly excellent gelato!
  • Moose Drop-In Trading Post (just outside of Seward) – for fudge!

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Coffee In Chicago: The Ultimate Curated List of Best and Unique Coffee Shops

Has anyone else started new traditions in the midst of this pandemic? Our family sure did. In an effort to get two feral children out of the house + help keep small coffee shops afloat during shutdown and shelter + feed our burgeoning caffeine addiction we started our own self tour of the city and coffee shops all over.

And it’s been so much fun! The lack of traffic makes getting downtown a breeze, giving us the chance to explore and see so many neighborhoods we never would have bothered trying to visit. I mean, who would drive and sit in traffic for 45+ minutes just for a new coffee shop? But now we are hooked and, since we’re a family of early risers, we still find ourselves checking out and exploring new spots.

So – our exploration is YOUR gain! I wanted to curate this extensive list of coffee shops that we’ve visited – I’ve clustered them by neighborhood-ish. This is thoroughly unscientific. It’s all my personal preferences but to give you an idea, here’s what brings a coffee shop to the top of the list:

  • Good coffee!
    • My husband always gets a black coffee so he provides his thoughts on that staple coffee
    • I am a latte/froo-froo coffee gal so I LOVE finding a place with fun and unique specialty lattes to try
  • Snacky/snacks
    • The pandemic has also brought rise to “Donut Saturday” in our house (blog post to come there, too!) and so a coffee shop with tasty snacks/food is also a plus
  • The Cute Factor
    • Give me a cute coffee shop – kitschy, sophisticated, whatever – and I’m sold. I’ll also get you a list of coffee shops that are great for indoor/outdoor workspace too, once I can properly test that (hard to say when we couldn’t sit indoor for, you know, over a year)
  • Kindness
    • We’ve all been there – the coffee shop that is waaaay too cool to be serving you. That doesn’t do it for me. I want the friendly neighborhood barista, I want the helpful rep who can walk me through what’s in their indiscriminately named latte and I’ll come back for the service.

You can use the map – interactive! – right here!

And now! My Favorites:

Elevate Coffee (Boystown)
I’m low-key obsessed with this place. One, because I love boystown and being anywhere in that area. Two because the service is spectacular, and three because their coffee was soooo good. They have the best rose latte ever – it’s Rose Marzipan and has real rose petals and I was awkward-love-moaning while drinking it. If that isn’t a review, then I don’t know what is.

Two Hearted Queen (Boystown)
Absurdly kind staff with very tasty drinks and do NOT pass up on ordering the scones. They are incredible. They have another location in Roscoe Village too that I’ll try to hit up some day.

Brew Brew Coffee + Tea (Avondale/Logan Square)
They have tasty and fun specialty lattes along with some pastries, bagels, and tortas. We tried the mushroom and “sunrise” torta and both were exceptionally good (if soooo messy). Outdoor seating and even a couple spots inside right now. Park is right nearby too which was fun and nice.

Four Letter Word (Logan Square)
Hard to tell the atmosphere as they did the walk-up window but coffee was good and the premise was cute so I’m all for a return visit.

necessary & sufficient coffee (Logan Square)
Okay, I really enjoyed this cute little place. Fun lattes, and I tried their mushroom breakfast sandwich and holy COW was it tasty. Window walk up so not sure on seating I plan a repeat visit.

Sip of Hope (Logan Square)
Love what this place stands for! We visited in the hardcore lockdown time so there wasn’t much to see but the place looked cute and the coffee was good. With 100% of their profits going toward mental health & suicide prevention how can you not want to buy something?

Botanical Cafe (North Center)
Look, I’ll be honest. I don’t really remember the coffee. It must have been at least fine – but really, this place wins for being the cutest cafe of all time. It’s also a plant store! I mean COME ON. I was dying a little and loving all of it. Must see.

Spoken Cafe (West Ravenswood)
I loved this adorable little spot – right under the train tracks which made it fun and they had such a lovely put together outdoor seating area with beautiful flowers. Not to mention the coffee and breakfast sandwiches were totally on point. Great find.

Cafe Urbano (Irving Park)
Good coffee, good sammies, cute little flatiron style building location. I’ll take it.

Coffee Lab + Roasters (Lakeview)
They have some amazing creative lattes and I want to try them all. Great coffee, good vibes, and donuts on the weekends (hollllla)

Doppio Coffee House (Lakeview)
Nice place with good drinks and donuts. Strong lakeview vibes but I can dig it. It’s nice to experience nice things, you know? I can be classy.

11 Degrees North (Lakeview East)
Here’s the thing, they had good coffee. Sure. But that’s not why I will be back. I’ll be back for those arepas man! Yummmmmm! Super cute, super nice staff. Definitely worth a stop.

Hero Coffee Bar (Lakeview)
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t suuuper impressed coffee-wise with Hero. But they have a few locations and I did get something floral (I forget if I got rose or lavender) but those can be tricky. So I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Especially because they had a selection of bagel sandwiches that were quite yummy in my tummy so I won’t fight anyone who wants to take me back.

Goddess and the Baker (Loop)
Seriously – what’s not to love about this place? It’s adorable with the most impressive display case with rainbow cakes and truly exceptional decorated cookies. And THEN they have great coffee and breakfast/lunch sandwiches? Sign me up. They tend to get super busy and aren’t nearly large enough for the crowds but if you can snag an outdoor seat it’s super fun as it’s right beneath the train.

Kapej Coffee (Old Town)
This snug little place pops up out of nowhere on a pretty residential street. It’s long and narrow and would be so much fun to snuggle into on an autumn or winter day with a crackling fire and – just, lovely. The staff was friendly and kind and they have a nice selection of various lattes and options. Been here twice and it feels like a place you’ve discovered.

Sip + Savor (Hyde Park)
There are (I think) a few Sip + Savors around Chicago but we’ve only been to the Hyde Park location. Solid coffee and I love the spread of unique lattes and mochas. Snack selection is sparse but there’s lots of indoor space and an absolutely gorgeous park across the street with a great playground so major bonus for an outdoor place to enjoy your brew.

AndySunflower Cafe (Beverly)
This place is so cute and the two women behind the counter (99% sure one was the owner) were exceptionally kind and helpful in explaining the menu to me. Excellent brews!

Big Shoulders (Gold Coast)
Super cute inside and looked like they have cushy seating in non-pandemic times. It looks exactly like a “coffee shop.” They legitimately toasted a marshmallow for me when I got the marshmallow latte soooo they obviously are in my heart forever now. They have a couple other locations but I’ve only been to this one on State Street.

Wormhole Coffee (Wicker Park)
It’s hard to be more hipster than Wormhole – but that’s why we love it, isn’t it? Smack dab in the midst of Wicker Park you’re right near Jeni’s (oh, heck yes) and they are serving up great coffee with a smidge of an outdoor space. If you can grab a spot, you can watch the riff-raff slide past and love every moment of it. Or at least I do.

Bru Coffee (Wicker Park)
Just a littel further down Milwaukee Ave you can find Bru Coffee which has three things going for it – solid coffee selections, a spot right next to Myopic Books (be still, my heart), and a selection of to-die-for crepes. Seriously… what’s not to love? The crepes took a while when we were but holy cow were they worth watching for.

Caffe Streets (Wicker Park)
Look, I’ll be honest, it was a little hard to judge this place in the midst of the pandemic. They had the whole window service thing going on and were ulllltra hipster so options were pretty limited. But the drinks were good and I appreciate solid COVID plan so they were worth the stop.

Atmos Coffee Shop (Bucktown)
Solid stop for quality coffee! Cute and friendly. I particularly enjoyed my Almond Bar Latte- delish.

Sawada Coffee (Fulton Market)
I’ll be honest here – Sawada Coffee didn’t do it for it. You’ll see they come up on just about every Chicago blog and I get it. They are clearly in-the-know when it comes to coffee and they mix a ton of their stuff with matcha – which, you know, cool but not really my flavor profile. They have donuts on Saturday at least and a few other selections so I feel good about that. But this is one of those places where it’s not just hipster, it’s the kind of place where if you are not hipster (which… guys, you’ll be shocked, this 30+ year old mom of two doesn’t quite fit the hipster vibe) you get side eye. And don’t you dare expect a smile, or even significant eye contact. This place is too cool for that.. but the coffee is solid. So there ya go.

Heritage Bikes and Coffee (West Loop)
Gah, loved this place. They have a few locations but have only hit up this one so far. Fun lattes, good pastries, and a handful of other knick-knacks. Sufficiently quirky to give me happy vibes.

Groundswell Coffee Roasters (West Loop)
This place has the perfect “my local coffeeshop” vibe. Friendly staff on a perky little section of Madison street that just begs to be strolled down. They had some donuts, some good coffee selection, who wouldn’t want to stop in?

Metric Coffee (West Loop-ish)
Okay – this place is kind of hilarious. You get here and it’s all industrial and you totally have that vibe where you wonder if you put the warehouse or something in your GPS. Don’t fear, it’s real, you can walk in and order your very sophisticated coffee. But – FUN FIND – they had this amaaaaazing selection of ridiculously fancy donuts that I bought too many of (oops?). Not sure if that’s just a weekend thing or not but I’m willing to, you know, fight for the cause, and go a couple more times to confirm for you. No need to thank me. It’s a service.

Dark Matter
Mothership (Ukrainian Village)
— Osmium (Boystown)
— Electric Mud Coffee Bar (Wicker Park)

Dark Matter has a few different locations and I’ve had the opportunity to frequent a few of them. They, honestly, are all about the same. Same menu, same vibe (uuuuultra hipster!). Their coffee is DELICIOUS and they have a few specialty options that are the bomb diggity. Not really any seating available, this is a get your coffee fix because it’s amazing and head out the do’ kind of place. Worth it and usually they have a selection of Do-Rite donuts available so, can’t fault that.

Places to pass on:


Look, I’m not trying to be mean, but there are a couple of places that just missed the mark and are worth saying – yeah, just skip them.
– Printers Row Coffee Co. (Lincoln Park) – just fine, but not great.
– Maison Parisienne (Lakeview East) – I went here because of the promise of pastries and they were decent but crazy $$ and the coffee was just okay to almost bad…
– Ritual Coffeehouse (Irving Park) – just fine
– GroundUp (West Loop) – coffee was not great and despite it smelling amaaaazing in there, the food was just okay.
– La Colombe (Randolph/West Loop) – yeah, yeah it’s a chain and it shows. Nothing to brag about.
– Oromo Cafe (Ravenswood) – accidentally went there twice and both time where ho-hum. Their specialty lattes sound delicious but both times I went their was sooo much debris in the bottom I had to ditch the last 1/4 of my cup. Disappointing.
– MeLatte Coffee (Logan Square) – so this place is ADORABLE but the coffee was only so-so and unfortunately the empanadas, a huge draw for me, were not great. I don’t be stopping by again.

Oak Park

Okay so I live in a suburb just west of the city, so you can bet that I’ve been to our local stops. I wanted to pull these aside for special props. If you can get out here (it’s actually super easy to do so by car or green/blue line) I highly recommend doing so since we have some great brews:

Kribi Coffee (Forest Park)
Kribi is AMAZING. They have delicious coffee and one of the best chai tea lattes I’ve had. They offer specialty lattes and are always updating them for the season. Gelato and a little pastry selection, breakfast sandwiches and avocado toast, it’s easy to get a light meal. Donuts on the weekend from Do-Rite and lots of indoor and outdoor seating. One of my favorite coffee shops of all time. Also they have amazing staff, I always feel so welcomed (plus a frequent visit punch card, yes please!)

Wise Cup
Such a cute place with really tasty coffee (and samosas and amazing chutney!!). A few other pastries but nothing worth chatting about. They have outdoor seating on Lake Street which, if a little noisy, is a fun and hopping spot in Oak Park.

Sugar Fixe
More bakery than coffee shop, they still make a mean cup (I am a little obsessed with their caramel-vanilla). This is the place to go if you are looking for some legit pastries and light snacks with your coffee. Amazing scones, croissants, and very classy desserts. Their indoor is really limited but their outdoor seating, while also limited, is adorable and on my favorite street, Marion, just off the main drag. Perfect spot to sit and enjoy life for a while.

Brewpoint Coffee
With another location in Elmhurst, this is a fairly established brand in Chicagoland and I’m sooo happy to have a spot here in Oak Park. They have super creative specialty lattes and other drinks and aren’t afraid of floral vibes (lavender, rose, etc – my faaaaav). Cute spot with indoor and outdoor seating. Well worth a stop.

Addis Cafe
Addis makes great coffee and has their own homemade chai (helllllo). They also have the best waffles you’ll ever have. Period. Indoor seating is really cute and while their outdoor seating is on a busy road and might not be there post-pandemic since it’s in the parking spots, there are a few options.

Whirlwind Coffee Company
New in town but already making strides! This place donates 100% of net profits to charity (holla) and their coffee is no joke. Great brews and while they don’t have froo-froo options on the menu they aren’t without flavors so it’s well worth the exploration. They are still ramping up so it was a little bare-bones but they have a side space outdoors that’s lovely. Great spot to stop.

Mulata Kitchen + Coffee
Admittedly the name of this coffee shop is very controversial so I have two minds of this place, but they do serve a good cup of coffee and they have truly amazing empanadas.

BOOKMARK THIS PAGE, FOLX! We are still exploring the city and I’ll be updating as I go! I would love to hear from you about any place not on this list that is worth a visit!

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Travels in Utah – A Literary, Pandemic-Friendly, Adventure

If I could give just one piece of advice to a happy life, it would be this. Find yourself a travel buddy. Someone who is willing to plan a trip with you a year in advance.

I happen to have two – and it’s glorious.

Before this crazy thing called a pandemic started, Zoe and I were sitting in Texas and decided our next adventure would be beautiful. Outdoorsy. Full of hikes and lots and lots of time to sit, talk, and write. Little did we know in planning this trip it would be the perfect (the only?) safe trip to take during a global pandemic.

I’ll admit, it was still strange to get on a plane in early November, double masked and wearing glasses, wondering if we were being stupid by not cancelling this pre-booked trip. But, with me in Chicago and Zoe in Los Angeles, we actually figured going to the remote towns in Utah would probably incur less daily exposure. So we kept on and, with careful masking, hand washing, and distance, I am happy to say we emerged from the endeavor without spreading the virus to ourselves or others.

And it was SUCH a wonderful adventure. Utah, folks, while often overlooked, is well worth the time and energy. We spent a single night in Salt Lake City and were able to see a good portion of the sights before hopping in our rental car and making the drive to Moab. Our goal – Arches National Park and a lot of writing.

All in all – mission accomplished.

Exploring Salt Lake City

We landed early in SLC and got our rental car from Rugged Rental, via the Qeeq app. This was new to me and felt maybe a little sketch, but I found the service to be excellent with Rugged and the process flawless. Give it a try if you aren’t married to one of the big rental companies. Rugged isn’t based at the airport so it’s a little annoying needing to take a shuttle, but it was quick, easy, and cheaper.

You’ll be shocked to learn our first stop was a bookstore and café for lunch. We highly recommend checking out Oasis Café and the Golden Braid Books for books. Both are adorable and the food at Oasis was excellent – try the toasted brie sandwich. So simple. So heavenly.

Toasted Brie Sandwich from Oasis Cafe

By the recommendation of just about every blog or travel guide you see, we made our way down to Temple Square to walk around and see the sites. As someone who, admittedly, knows nothing about the Church of Latter Day Saints that wasn’t taught in the musical Book of Mormon, I found myself amazed, and somewhat bewildered, by the sights. There was beauty in the structures, but Salt Lake City is just so new – and it showed. The gaudy, built in the 80s, office building for the church was both an eyesore and yet somehow endearing. Like – bless their hearts, they were so enthusiastic they didn’t even think about the aesthetics.

The entire area around Temple Square was pretty, but eerily quiet. We weren’t sure what to make of it. It was a nice day in November – mid ’70s – but perhaps a little windy and cloudy. Sure, there’s a pandemic on, but regardless we were basically the only people around aside from the overly friendly guides in their skirts and always walking 2 by 2. The spider-like structure over a main road that had oddly Germany in the 1930s tones didn’t help much either.

I’m being judge-y. Salt Lake City is a cute, quiet little place with some lovely parks. We bopped around and found some cute street art too!

By the time we had walked around the Temple Square area, we decided it was time for another book store and made it over to Weller Bookworks. This place was lovely with a large selection, used and new. Definitely a good stop.

Dinner for us that night took us to the East Liberty Tap House which had a nice patio space with firepits. We both opted for the lamb sloppy joes which, while odd in theory, were magic in my mouth. We then walked down the street and found the grand opening of Pie Fight and snagged pumpkin cheesecake hand pies for dessert. They were excellent and the new business has such a cute walk-up window.

Our airbnb for the night was just blocks from the capitol, which is such a beautiful area. Our place was above a garage and so adorable it was worthy of a squeal. Highly recommend.

Salt Lake City is so well planned – the beauty of the foresight for what it would be is not to be dismissed. Sure, it’s rigid planning with excessively wide roads made those of us from lesser planned cities feel a little uncomfortable. To me, other than the couple hipster neighborhood we found, Salt Lake City felt a little too prescriptive – very clean, very structured. A little Big Brother feeling. It was interesting and new but I wouldn’t spend more than a day or two there.

Utah Road Trip – Salt Lake City to Moab

We took the long way to Moab since we had plenty of time between check out at 10am and check in at 3pm. So we went slightly out of our way by first heading to Park City and getting a coffee at Atticus Coffee + Tea. This place was adorable and busy. Lots of kitschy items and while, yes, there were some books but to call it a book shop was a stretch. Still, fun drink options so well worth the stop.

We walked the long length of the road and immediately wished it were later than 9am since many of the shops weren’t open. But there was lots of potential with other restaurants, galleries, book shops, etc. The boutiques looked classy and not repetitive. I’d love to go back there and explore Park City again.

I’ll never forget that it was here, after a nice stroll down the role, that we learned Biden/Harris won the 2020 election. Glorious, glorious morning.

We made our second road trip pit stop in Provo and visited Pioneer Book. Despite its lovely size, I have to say I found this book shop disappointing. It felt dated and they didn’t seem to do a good job with the inventory on the shelved – there were 10 copies of the same Danielle Steel book shelved next to another 10 copies of another Danielle Steel book, for example. I mean, books are books so it was nice, but definitely not my favorite book store.

We stopped at Peace on Earth for coffee and lunch. The coffee was amazing, but our grilled cheeses were pretty terrible. So – opt for drinks and skip the food.

Provo was our last stop until we got to Moab, whose size and variety of stores genuinely surprised us. This town is way more bustling than we guessed – it was certainly more alive than Salt Lake City! There are tons of food options though we found getting delivery to be absurdly challenging.

Side note – on our way back to Salt Lake City from Moab we stopped in this tiny town, Helper, for coffee at a place called Happiness Within. It was a nice little stop, coffee was decent, and the whole place felt kitschy. Worth pulling off the road for if you need to stretch your legs.

Highlights of Moab

We stayed at this airbnb, which was picked exclusively because there is an indoor rock climbing wall in the master bedroom and the second bedroom has a 3-story bunk bed. It was wild and also perfect. Highly recommend.

There are quite a few options for coffee in Moab but our favorite was definitely Doughbird. Good coffee (and while we didn’t taste any, the doughnuts looked amazing) but even better the staff was wonderful. So friendly! We went back to that exact reason.

Mural on the side of Doughbird

We made most of our food during our stay, but we did end up getting take out from Arches Thai and Fiesta Mexicana and both were very tasty.

The best highlight of Moab though, was their bookstore, Back of Beyond Books. High praise for this place. Usually book stores in these little towns barely qualify to be called a book store but this place was legit.

Old and new books, lots of title relevant to the area, but even though the selection of fiction was small it was not limited. Someone is on top of it and had so many brand new books, really cognizant of what is going on in literature, amazing editions. Honestly, I was so impressed. Do NOT skip this place if you are in Moab!

The Hikes: Arches National Park and Canyonlands

Let’s start with the whole reason we were in Utah.

Arches National Park.

Its beauty truly knows no bounds.

The drive alone was magnificent but the hikes were also lovely. We’ll admit that even in November it was pretty busy. We heard that was likely a pandemic situation and that the weekend we were there, especially since the weather was okay to kind-of gross, typically would have been a lot quieter. Still, we and the other hikers were great with masking.

Windows

Aches National Park is well laid out with almost all the hikes being quite short. A lot of the sights are barely off the road which meant we were able to see Balanced Rock, Double Arch, Windows, all in quite succession. We took the most possible trail to Delicate Arch which we highly recommend. It was just far and challenging enough to finally feel like a real hike and the end sight of Delicate Arch was so worth it.

Double Arch

Honestly, we were able to see the vast majority of what we wanted to see of Arches in about 4-5 hours total. We missed a couple of spots and hoped to come back but the weather stopped us. It’s say you need no more than 2 days at Arches but it is sooo worth the stop.

Delicate Arch

Our last full day took us to Canyonlands to get a little variety and, we hoped, to try and catch better weather. We were wrong and ended up driving and hiking through some pretty significant snowfall. We had hoped to do a different trail, maybe more than one at Canyonlands, but the snow changed those plans. Instead we just went the short distance to Mesa Arch which was lovely and super eerie to see with the total storm clouds.

Mesa Arch

We probably missed some of the sights because of the weather but I can definitely say the views from the drive through Arches far exceeded Canyonlands. It’s an easy stop though if you find you’ve “finished” Arches and still have time on your hands.

Five Days in Utah – and we still want more

Ultimately, any place is going to be amazing when the purpose is to get together with an old friend and just be. But Utah was all we hoped it would be. Even with less-than-ideal weather we were really able to enjoy the outdoors and the amazing scenery. It’s a location well worth exploring and one that book lovers can snag some great finds too.

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Independent Bookstores in and around Chicago – A (Pandemic-Friendly!) Guide

You know how sometimes we don’t explore our own backyards? It occurred to me not long ago that I’ve written a number of literary explorations around the country and have NEVER highlighted Chicago. Despite the pandemic I rectified that and managed to visit a lot of bookstores, especially over the summer when things were a bit more cheerful.

Support the community and take your own tour of Chicago via books with my guide of the best independent and local bookstores below!

The Looking Glass – 823 S Oak Park Ave, Oak Park, IL

I love this little used bookstore. They have an eclectic mix of books and the shop is relatively small. But they have the BEST gifts! From blind books to journals to unique cards and knick-knacks – if you have a literary friend you are bound to find something cute for them here.

Roscoe Books – 2142 W. Roscoe Street, Chicago

You know those bookstores that just get you? They have the vibe, the beauty, and, even better, the inventory of books that makes you salivate? Roscoe Books is my happy place. They have so many great, new titles and lots of contemporary romance. Cute set up with the perfect mixture of lots of titles and room to stand. Win/win.

Volumes Bookcafe – 1474 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago

SO cute. I unfortunately went during a pandemic so I didn’t get to try the café part of the book café, but I know I would love it. This place is set up so perfectly with a great little selection of stories and what looked like an excellent place to sit and relax with a hot beverage. I can’t wait to check it out in full force in the future.

Pro Tip – there is a sister location, Volumes Bookstore on Michigan Ave!

Bookends & Beginnings – 1712 Sherman Ave, Evanston

Oooh man – guys, this place is so worth the trek up to Evanston. You’re in the heart of Northwestern but you disappear somewhere else entirely for this store. It’s tucked away in an alley (SO adorable) and it’s so much bigger than it looks. Crazy good selection and has that tilty, old school book store feel. Love.

Myopic Books, 1564 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago

Myopic is an establishment in Chicago. It’s your classic DGAF kind of used bookstore. Plenty of worn edges, musty corners, and books no one has touched in years. I also have a particular fondness for bookstores with stairs. This place has bizarre and wonderful half-levels that make you feel like an explorer.

Fun tip – it’s only a stones throw away from Volumes Bookcafe and Jeni’s Ice Cream… so you really never need to leave this block of the city. Ever. Just move in.

The Book Table – 1045 Lake Street, Oak Park

Back to my stomping grounds in Oak Park, this is a great new book store. It’s generously sized (they recently expanded!) so you know you can go in and get what you need. Tons of helpful staff and tips on what to choose next.

Madison Street Books, 1127 W Madison St, Chicago

This is such a lovely spot! This poor bookshop has a grand opening just two days before the pandemic March shelter-in-place hit so they could use some love – and do they deserve it! The staff is friendly and the kids section is adorable. I highly recommend!

Semicolon – 515 N. Halsted Street, Chicago

Black woman owned – so that right there makes it a winner. It’s not really open for in-store browsing because pandemic but they do lots of community support and it’s a fantastic stop. Definitely hit this one up!

The Armadillo’s Pillow – 6753 N Sheridan Rd, Chicago

Mad props for an amazing name. This place is soooo quirky. Used booked, piles everywhere, plenty of space to get lost. What more to do need? Oh, yeah, an entire afternoon to dawdle.

Unabridged Bookstore – 3251 N Broadway, Chicago

Love this place. It’s a great space and has some amazing travel and LGBTQ+ sections. Excellent selection (all new) with up to date trends. Plenty of room to linger.

Sandmeyer’s Bookstore – 714 S Dearborn St, Chicago

This is a lovely little spot to hit up if you are exploring downtown Chicago – just a few short blocks away from Willis Tower. With bright, wide shelves and all new books it’s a great spot to find some of the “top hits”. Add a star for the creakiest floors ever (and I mean that in the BEST way possible).

Open Books – 651 W. Lake Street, Chicago
(there are other locations in the city too!)

This book store is packed with books and yet the tall ceilings make it feel open (ha) and lovely. Great initiatives and events happen here too. It’s an easy place to get lost in.

Centuries & Sleuths –  7419 Madison St, Forest Park

Who doesn’t love a good themed bookstore?! Mysteries and histories are the game here and while the store itself doesn’t have a ton of browsing potential, they have a fun table of blind books and the staff will help you with anything you could desire. Madison Street in Forest Park is a delightful area to walk around (check out Twisted Cookie or The Brown Cow for some sweet treats)!

Book Bin – 1151 Church St Northbrook, IL

This is a fun little stop off! Great selection with some good gifts (I found a great puzzle of the Chicago skyline!) Super friendly and perfect for a visit if you’re in in those NW suburbs.

Barbara’s Books – 2651 Navy Boulevard, Glenview

Perhaps a little sterile (though that’s not a bad thing in a pandemic) this place has lots of room to breathe. Plenty of new hits and a nice getaway in this outdoor mall area. Other locations around the city.

I’m still working my way through Chicagoland and have lots to explore so check back for more! Let me know where I should go next!

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Traveling alone in Romania – Adventures in Transylvania

Two years ago, almost to the day, I found myself alone in Transylvania.

Biggest takeaway – it was beautiful.

Sinaia Monestary – Transylvania

Romania had always been one of my random must-see hot spots. Sure, saying you’ve been to Transylvania is a fun one-up on people, being one of those off-the-beaten-path destinations, but I’ve also always been drawn to that Eastern European landscape. So when I was asked to go Bucharest and train our European recruitment team, I jumped at the chance.

Beautiful walk near Parcul Izvor in Bucharest

I spent a week in our Global Business Services office, training and meeting my European counterparts, before then taking a long weekend to explore Transylvania before finally heading home to the husband and kids.

And let me tell you – Romania is a delightful little spot to go exploring alone. English is widely spoken, people are friendly, and anyone who’s not a complete travel amateur will find it easy to navigate. Because it’s not super touristy, you don’t have to worry about getting conned. Uber is widely used and dirt cheap.

It’s beautiful country in general but when I was there the fall colors were positively magnificent and every autumn since I haven’t been able to see a golden leaf without remembering the lovely week and half I spent in Romania.

Bucharest

Famous umbrella street

My first week in Bucharest was for work and we all stayed at the JW Marriott Bucharest Grant Hotel. This is a truly upscale hotel and it seems to be where a good amount of high class people stay (some musician and Japanese diplomat were there while we were). From a cultural standpoint I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it – you know me, I like unique and quaint – but it was a very nice place and in a pretty easy-to-get-around location. The palace is literally right across the giant round-about death circle.

View from my room at the Marriott – two years ago they were working round-the-close on this massive orthodox cathedral. I assume it’s done now.

It doesn’t look like a common area to take a walk but we did anyway and the guards were very suspicious of us snapping pictures.

Somewhat frowned upon picture of the palace at night

A few of my co-workers and I stumbled upon an absolutely delightful restaurant within walking distance called Locanta Jaristea. It’s entrance is completely unassuming – we honestly were a bit worried we were walking into someone’s house –

but once the door was open we were blasted with music and clapping and a total overload of stuff. Locanta Jaristea was a cornucopia of tourist bliss. The menu was almost entirely meat, the establishment was filled with gaudy relics of Romanian past, and dancers and performers entertained us non-stop.

A veritable Romanian-mariachi band walked amongst the tables and serenaded us. Since all four of us were from different countries (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and myself from the US) we were all treated to a “traditional” song from our country. I got Frank Sinatra.

The entire experience was delightful and I recommend visiting this establishment whole heartedly.

The weekend I was there they were hosting a street food and wine festival (#MEGAstreetfood) that literally took place at the palace. It was amazing and if you happen to be there when it’s happening – or if you want to plan your trip around it – I highly recommend it. The food trucks were so much fun (over 50!) and the wine tasting took place in the palace – you were able to walk around, learn about the different vendors, taste and buy bottles, etc. It was a really unique and fun experience that happens annually.

After this – I was on my own. I walked and explored the city – both on my own, but also in an organized tour. Both were excellent ways to see this Romanian capital. I always recommend explorers partake in at least one guided tour of a city, even if it’s a free one, but for Bucharest especially. There is so much history – recent history – to see and understand here. Bucharest looks very rough (there is graffiti everywhere) and to understand the cultural explanation of that was really rewarding.

Most Memorable Sights in Bucharest – 1-2 days

Parcul Izvor was a sweet little place not far from the Palace – I stumbled upon a touristy little craft market while on my way to Origo for some tea (see more below!)

Below are sights from my own walking and wandering – I didn’t end up doing a free walking tour but I guarantee if you go on one it’ll hit a lot of the beautiful spots below.

The tour I did end up taking was through Intrepid Urban Adventures, their Dark Side of Bucharest tour. The scariest part was almost certainly meeting in front of the KFC. We ended up visiting two cemeteries and, while they were a bit obnoxious to get to on the subway, it was interesting to see something I never would have visited on my own. The guide had some great stories, too.

After the cemetery visits, we were also taken around to the various monuments and locations of the revolution. This part was great and I really appreciated having the guide. I had always walked past a lot of the areas but didn’t know the details. It’s such recent past and I really felt I learned a lot about the city. I definitely recommend Urban Adventures if you’re open to paying for a tour.

That concluded all the activities of Bucharest before I made my way up to Transylvania. I found some amazing places to eat and relax though – see below:

Favorite Cafes and Restaurants in Bucharest

Origo
More known for the coffee, they were SO kind when I asked about the tea selection. She actually brought out the canisters for me to sniff (I chose one with infused violet) and gave me one of the many wool blankets for my lap. Delightful.

Cozy spot at Origo

Cărturești Carusel
If you know anything about my travel habits – this is my happy place. It’s a book store with amazing architecture and a café on the top floor. It has literally everything. I ordered a lemonade with orange and mint and made plans to eventually be buried here if my plans for living forever don’t work out.

Pasta Restaurant
Yes. It’s literally called Pasta Restaurant. They make fresh pasta on site, the décor is adorable, and they have dried pasta under glass on the tables. I meaaaan COME ON. Loveeee.

Pasta Restaurant

Cărtureşti Verona
Quite literally one of my favorite concepts in the world. It’s a book store, tea studio, and project space all in a unique historical building. It’s lesser known than it’s downtown sister but I loved it even more. Beneath lovely trees with flowers and happy people – delicious food with specials of the day and flavored lemonades. I asked if I could live there, but they said no.

Animaletto Pizza Bar
Absurdly adorable pizza place with a lovely patio space. I’m a sucker for good lighting and paving stones (oh, and the pizza was also legit).

Nothing like ordering a whole pizza for myself

Nomad Skybar
This place is in a really fun location right on one of the main restaurant/club areas. It’s a bit seedy of an area, the “old town” but still one you are bound to visit if you’re doing any kind of nighttime activity in Bucharest. Nomad was fun because the rooftop allowed for some great views of the city and people watching below (also with tasty apps and drinks!)

Brașov

After my week in Bucharest I hopped the train, 2.5 hours, up to Brașov, Transylvania. It’s surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains and is known for it’s medieval walls, the Black Church, and a beautiful Council Square. It’s so adorable with cobbled streets and an entire street dedicated to outdoor restaurant seating. Oddly, it has a Hollywood-esque sign on the mountain side that totally takes away from the historic air but I liked the quirkiness of it.

See the Brasov sign?

You won’t need more than a day, maybe two, here. I only spent the one night before moving on, but I enjoyed putzing around the little town. The free walking tour available was quite good as well.

View of Brașov from the sign. Can you see the main square below?

Not surprisingly, one of the main things to do is go to the top of the mountain to view the city. There’s a platform literally right next to the Brașov/Hollywood sign which I found lovely and hilarious. The views are truly amazing though. You can either hike the whole thing or, after a short beautiful walk, you can just ride a cable car to the top.

Edge of the sign from the viewing platform

Piața Sfatului, or the Council Square, is a lovely place to chill out and people watch. It’s clearly the most central part of the city with great views of the mountains, cafes, a fountain and historical buildings. People use this as a meeting place and the vibrancy of the city shows here. I grabbed a snack at La Ceaun which wasn’t bad but wasn’t great either. The vibe made it worth it, though.

I stayed the night at a hostel up the hill (Kismet Dao – I think it might be closed now) which was fine but not something I would specifically recommend unless you are a legit 20-something backpacker. I left early, opting to walk the almost 3 miles to the train station. Seeing the town square at dawn was really quite amazing and I’m glad I tired out my feet to do so.

There were a few more things I could have done in Brașov, but I opted to head to one of the many castles of Transylvania. Now – I had a few options and one of those was, notably, Bran Castle or “Dracula’s Castle”.

I skipped it.

I decided I didn’t need the tourism – it had very heavily mixed reviews – and instead headed for what was touted to be the far better castle in Sinaia.

Sinaia

Best known for it’s castle and a ski resort town, Sinaia was relatively sleepy while I was there. But that didn’t bother me in the least. I was there at the true peak of the fall foliage and the beautiful of the oranges and yellows were incredible.

My train to Sinaia was uneventful and I made it easily to my B&B, Vila Camelia. It’s super easy to get to from the train and I had an adorable top floor room with a balcony. The food was excellent. I loved the little spot and would highly recommend.

My balcony with a view ❤

It didn’t take me long to settle into the B&B and then walk up to Peleș Castle. I inadvertently took the scenic route (zigged when I should have zagged) and the road was steep but it was still a nice walk with great views up to the castle.

Now – Castle might be a bit of a misnomer as it’s really more of a palace, or legit nice house, but it’s well worth a visit. From the grounds to the inside, everything is immaculate and well-preserved. The guides are great and I learned a lot about the history of Romania.

And that was it! After seeing Sinaia it was back on the train to Bucharest, one more night there in a hostel, the Podstel Umbrella, (super nice with private rooms!) and then back on the plane for home.

I truly enjoyed my time in Romania and while, honestly, at the time I didn’t rank it as one of my top vacations, I find myself thinking back to the week or so I spent there a lot. It’s a country where I found some of the best things I love – book stores and views and flavored lemonades. I wouldn’t turn down the chance to go again.

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Becoming a Brewsader – The BEST Grand Rapids Breweries (Ranked!)

Those who know me know that beer is a serious passion of mine (heck, I even work for Molson Coors, one of the largest brewers in the world). So my husband and I took a long weekend in the self-proclaimed “Beer City” – Grand Rapids, Michigan in February 2020.

The best part is Grand Rapids has a really fun little adventure to help direct your activities in the city! You can become a “Brewsader” and get stamps at over 40 participating breweries. If you get 8 or more stamps you can get a free, super-exclusive, t-shirt! Nothing quite gets my competitive spirit going quite like free swag so you can bet I was on board.

The hardest part about seeking to be a Brewsader is selecting where to go. There are a LOT of great options and I spent an absurd amount of time ranking, mapping, and identifying where to go. Here’s a quick cheat sheet of where we went and and how they ranked. You might as surprised as I was!

1) Creston Brewery
Ok – so I loooooved Creston Brewery. We went there for brunch on our last day and I could sing praises for everything. The space – an old furniture factory – was adorable and bright, the food was delicious, the service was perfect friendly midwestern nice, and, the beer! Let’s not forget the beer. So good with lots of unique options – good for brunch and for later if you decide to do so.
Did I mention they had these AMAZING Ice Box Brand Ice Cream Bars in a cooler?! I literally looked after we got home to see if they will deliver to Chicago (sad face, no). So, it’s worth going for that alone.

Our memorable samplings:
– Honey Bear (3.75 – Golden Ale)
– Bokonon (4.5 – New England IPA)
– Blueberry Sweet Street (4.25 – American Pale Wheat – really well balanced)
– Michicalia (4.5 – Sour Gose)

2) Grand Rapids Brewing Co
This place was just down the street from our hotel and one of our first stops due to convenience. It made me wish I wasn’t specifically trying to find other places to go, because I really wanted to go back. The vibe was really fun and the food was excellent. And then the beer! It was SO good with excellent sour options. Really fun, vibrant selections. Definitely a place worth stopping.

Our memorable samplings:
– Rosalynn Bliss Blonde (4 – Blonde Ale – really fun flavor profile
– DDH Imperial Nordic Flux (4.5 – IPA – this one was ASTOUNDINGLY good)
– Petite Chouette (4.75 – Sour – a literally near perfect sour. YUM.)
– Princess Unicorn Pom Pom Party Passion Queen (4.5 – Sour – I would have given it a 4+ by name alone. But it was ALSO good. I mean, come onnn)

3) City Built Brewing Company
We stopped by City Built for lunch as it had latin-style food and, when it comes to bar hopping, it’s easy to get sick of the traditional pub fare quickly. This place did not disappoint with excellent tacos. The space itself was really cute with long tables, high tops, and a big selection of board games. It was super family friendly which made us miss our kids – well, kind of.
And the beer! Super tasty with a lot of interesting options including sours (yay!). Definitely would go back.

Our memorable samplings:
– #happyfriendsgiving (3.75 – sour)
– Even Higher Life (3.75 – IPL – how could I resist a play on High Life?!)
– Tender Elvis (4 – Farmhouse Ale – Saison)
– Noah On Monroe (4.25 – Sour)

4) New Holland – The Knickerbocker
Okay – so as a nationally (or at least regionally?) distributed beer, we knew New Holland needed to be a stop. I mean, who hasn’t tried Dragon’s Milk? We decided to take a tour here and it was a good one – samplings with a good education of the brewing and distilling they do on site.
But – the place is huge and it was crazy busy while we were there. Even with the size we couldn’t get a seat anywhere after the tour so we didn’t get to try much. If you can get there when it’s not a mad house (not sure if that ever happens?) then it’s worth going.

Our memorable samplings:
– Dragon’s Milk (4.25 – Imperial Stout)
– Tangerine Space Machine (4 – New England IPA)

5) Founders Brewing Co.
Ah – Founders. This was a must go for a variety of reasons for Eric and I. Centennial IPA is a family favorite and so we purchased the tour and made it our Saturday night stop.
First off – I personally wouldn’t go to the tour. I’m spoiled having worked for Molson Coors and I’ve been able to see on multiple occasion the big operations for Miller in Milwaukee and Coors in Golden, but even still I think if brewing would have been new to me the tour still would be disappointing. None of the operations were running and everything was shown from an overhanging balcony. It definitely wasn’t worth the time or money.
The taproom area was nice and had some live music while we were there. We didn’t stay because it was exceptionally crowded and the ordering process was actually a little confusing. Still, Founders beer is delicious and if you haven’t had it, it’s worth a stop. We just didn’t love the overall execution of the process.

Our memorable samplings:
– K.I.T. Pale Ale (3.75 – Pale)
– All Day (4 – IPA – a classic)
– Hello Jane (4.25 – IPA)
– Kentucky Breakfast (2 – Stout – guys, I’m just not a big stout fan in general but oof, I really don’t like KBS. Sorry, I know there’s a lot of KBS lovers out there)
– Solid Gold (3.5 – American Light Lager)
– Rubaeus (3.75 – Fruit Beer – let’s face it, I’ll always be a Rubeaus fan. After all, it’s what I consider to be a “gateway” to the best style of beer, souuuurs!)

6) Atwater Grand Rapids
Full disclosure – we specifically went to Atwater because this was the newest craft partner to the Molson Coors family and I was excited to give it a try for the sake of my work.
And I’m glad we did! The space was cute and the beer flight has some really tasty prospects. I will say this is the place where we encountered the worst service but I got the sense it was a bit of an off day so don’t judge too harshly. It’s definitely a good stop if you are in the area for New Holland.

Our memorable samplings:
– Fog (3.75 – IPA)
– Whango Raz (4.75 – American Pale Wheat – I loooved the balance of the mango and raspberry in this one)
– Hey Diddle Diddle (4 – American Pale Wheat)
– Sunshine in January (3.75 – blonde ale)

7) E.B. Coffee & Pub
This may be surprising to you, but finding breweries open for breakfast wasn’t an easy feat (I know, right? Amateurs). And that is where E.B. Coffee & Pub did not disappoint. It’s a drive – maybe 15 minutes – outside of Grand Rapids. If you’re looking for that morning option this is a solid location. No one blinked at our double beverage order of latte and beer and we were able to sit in some comfy chairs around the fireplace.
We only sampled a little of the beer selection but the two we had were solid options if not mind-bending.

Our memorable samplings:
– Dirty Dancer (4 – Blonde Ale)
– Blackberry IPA (4 – a dark IPA)

8) TwoGuys Brewing
Excellent reviews made this our first stop on the way into town from Chicago. Such a stereotypical hipster brewery. It used to be a convenience store from the looks of it and the tables were all wobbly and all the workers wore flannel, beards, and beanies. It was kind of adorable. The food was decent and the beers were good, but the ambiance was a bit lacking. If you’re driving past it’s not a bad spot but if you’re already in Grand Rapids you don’t need to make the trip out.

Our memorable samplings:
– Gingerbread Joe (4.5 – winter warmer – not normally my style, but good)
– TwoGuys IPA (4.5 – IPA – a very solid IPA)

9) Brewery Vivant
This brewery had a super high rating, ties to the founder of New Holland, and is in an amazing old refurbished funeral home (coooool!) – so I was psyched to go. We made the trek (a little over a mile) from downtown which was actually a really nice walk past some historical buildings. But – to be honest – we were a little disappointed.
Their beer were mostly farmhouse style and, while seemed decent, didn’t do much for us. The menu was quite small and a litte frou-frou/pricey for our tastes (think duck confit, etc).

Our memorable samplings:
– Jam Jar (3.5 – Farmhouse Ale – honestly, this reminded me of Rubeaus but… not as good)

All in all, it was a huge success and definitely a cute/fun town to visit. We were there in February so I can’t speak for outdoor options but I bet a lot of these places have them and have adapted for the social distancing requirements as well. We hope to go back to Grand Rapids soon and add to our list (even though we already earned the shirt!)

If you go, we found the Hyatt to be a solid place to stay for both comfort and location – it was very easy to walk to pretty much all these breweries and there were others in walking distance we didn’t make it to.

What did we miss that we have to make sure we get to next time?

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The Most Unique (and Best) Airbnbs in the World

I take the question of “where should we stay?” very seriously when I travel. I don’t stop at a Hilton. Like food, where you stay tells the story of a place and I make it my mission to stay in a place where I want to take a picture before I mess up the sheets. Here is my list of the most amazing and unique places I’ve stayed.

A Treehouse in Plymouth, Massachusetts

That’s right. A giant, friggin’ treehouse. SQUEE. It was roomy and so unique! Beautiful grounds, luxury inside, with a compostable toilet in the tree house and rustic outdoor shower that made it feel like real tree house living. Highly recommend!

A prison cell in Ljubljana, Slovenia

This has literally been my go-to “fun fact” about myself since 2009. Because no one believes me when I say “I’ve spent two nights in a Slovenian jail.” Not technically AirBnB but still thoroughly amaaaazing.

Hammocks Galore in Galapagos

The White House in Puerto Ayora was a delight. Tiny rooms but plenty of hammock space and such a great location. I mean, I pretty much just love the Galapagos so you probably can’t go wrong anywhere but this, THIS place is a great start.

Cloud Forest Views in Mindo, Ecuador

Las Terrazas de Dana are AMAZING. Filled with tropical plants, beautiful views, unfortgettable hikes, and food we just couldn’t get enough of. Go to Mindo because it’s beautiful, but REALLY go to Mindo because this place is to die for.

Balcony Dreams in Sinaia, Romania

Sinaia is a sleepy little ski town famous for the Peles Castle. While not the most famous castle in Romania, it’s a beautiful and wonderful little spot. The Vila Camelia was a wonderful true Bed and Breakfast with a delicious spread, gorgeous house, and I scored a beautiful top floor room with balcony that looked at the most beautiful mountain view!

The Sweetest Spot in Topanga, California

She isn’t kidding when she calls this the sweetest spot. Fluffy white blankets, comfy beds, a beautiful view – everything right down to the coffee cups are absolutely adorable. Such an amazing getaway spot – just don’t let the drive up the Canyon road intimidate you!

Dar with Beautiful Rooftop in Fez

This was such a magical place – finding it was a treasure hunt and walking inside was a breath of fresh air. It’s been a few years so I don’t know if the same staff is there but I STILL remember how delicious the chicken tagine was that we had from the cook.

The Fortress in Vermont

Okay – full disclosure – I haven’t actually stayed here. But it’s run by good friends of mine and it is on my “must go” list… and it looks AMAZING. I have no qualms promising epic views and hospitality.

Keep checking back for updates! Also – I would LOVE to hear about your favorite spots!!

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My Book-Ish Tour (In and Around) Boston

In the Summer of 2019 my husband and I took off for New England for a week. He had a Pinball Expo to attend to promote the newest game for his company which meant I had a few days to frolic around the area. That, of course, meant that I scouted out all the literary things I could find in the area and woo-boy I found some amazing things!

Boston

First off, we spent a day in Boston. We stayed in a nice little airbnb in the North End of Boston. It’s a very Italian area, super walkable and pretty centrally located. We didn’t have a lot of time in the city but racked up the miles by trotting around the area and following the Freedom Trail which is, very conveniently, marked on the sidewalks.

I’ll be honest, while I did enjoy Boston, after spending so much time traveling elsewhere – and especially a lot of time in Europe – I wasn’t overly impressed with the history. My favorite tidbits of Boston weren’t really part of the Freedom Trail. The Boston Public Library was nice to pop into with a beautiful study room (any library with long tables and green lamps wins me over)

We also kind of stumbled across two memorials that I didn’t read anything about in my copious Boston Tour Book research that felt very powerful to me. The first we found was the Iraq-Afghanistan Memorial which had hanging dog tags. It was a beautiful and moving way to capture the numbers.

The second was the Holocaust Memorial which was easily the most moving I have ever seen. The tall glass columns were filled with steam and name after name after name. Being able to step into the grating and be immersed in the sensation was… emotional. Don’t miss this if you make it to Boston.

Holocaust memorial

Cape Cod/Plymouth

After Boston we spent a couple days exploring Cape Cod and stayed in what can only be described as one of the coolest places I’ve EVER slept – an EPIC tree house in Plymouth. It was both luxurious and rustic and since it wasn’t quite on Cape Cod proper we didn’t have a crazy amount of traffic to deal with either. Honestly – I could have stayed there a week. The local spots were adorable and the tree house was a dream.

From there, we went up to Sturbridge for the pinball expo and HERE is where it start to get bookish. I waved good-bye and popped into a number of drool-worthy places for the literary inclined.

Concord, Massachusetts

It was a blisteringly hot day when I made my way to Concord, but I didn’t let it stop me. I parked downtown and walked down to the Minute Man National Park which was a lovely place to stroll through and read a little history. The town is famous for Henry David Thoreau, Louis May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne (who wrote “the shot heard round the world”), and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

After walking the park, I found a couple websites that directed me to the cemetery where I could creep on/pay my respects to these literary heroes. It was a nice detour walk back into town.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I popped into a number of shops in the adorable little town proper but my absolute favorite was Nesting. I don’t usually go bananas about little shops (honestly, I get intimidated by almost any place that isn’t a coffee shop or book store) but I felt comfortable in the twists and turns of this adorable beige and tan beauty. Definitely check it out if you are there – LOTS of cards and journals.

Before leaving town I knew I needed to find my way to Walden. It was mysteriously closed in the morning so I waited in a gigantic line. The parking lots were huge and the place was packed – which, for me, was a bit tongue in cheek given why it was famous. I almost turned around, worried the magic would be gone, but decided I would make good on my entry fee and found a path that circled the lake.

Walden Pond

While it certainly wasn’t the peaceful wilderness that Thoreau experienced, it is a truly gorgeous lake and I’m glad I stopped. The walk around the lake was pleasant but you could easily bring your swim suit and spend an afternoon – just be prepared to share the space if it’s a nice day.

The park did a great job highlighting where Thoreau was and there were a few literary gawkers there like me and not just sunbathers.

Hartford, Connecticut

I’ve always had a soft spot for Mark Twain and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see his home in Hartford. The drive from Sturbridge was an easy one and I got to check off another state from my to-do list as well.

I got into Hartford early and planned to pop into a coffee shop for some writing and reading. I went to Blue State Coffee as they promised to donate 2% to democratic initiatives. The brew was tasty but, I’ll be honest, the downtown area where I needed to park and walk was not pleasant. I was nervous to leave my rental car where I did at 9am and Blue State overall had a cold atmosphere. I had hoped to walk around downtown Hartford but ended up getting my coffee, writing a journal entry, and heading to the house.

The Mark Twain House was a delight and well worth the drive to Hartford. The tour was expertly done. The information about Twain was super interesting but, even more, the house itself was awesome and fascinating. Very beautiful and unique with a top-notch gift shop.

I didn’t get the chance to visit the Harriet Beecher Stowe house and center as I ran out of time but it’s literally on the same grounds, which is super neat. I did pop into the gift shop which was full of feminist loveliness.

All in all

I had a lovely time bopping around the area and finding book-ish things to do. I can’t report on any really great coffee shops unfortunately (I went to a few but didn’t LOVE any of them). I also wish I could have gone up to Salem or a few other key historical spots. But if you’re in the area, I highly recommend the places I’ve highlighted here!

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