Category Archives: Reviews

Experience: Shockoe in 24 Hours

Urban Farmhouse Market & Café - Richmond, Va.

Urban Farmhouse Market & Café – Richmond, Va.

I was visiting family near Richmond, Va. area over the past few days for the holidays.  My decision to stay downtown was a strategic one because I desperately needed content for TravelReider, and, in 41 years, I have never stepped foot in the city.

Growing up, Richmond was a passthrough from Washington, D.C. to other points south, mainly the Outer Banks of North Carolina and Florida.  From the backseat window traveling north to south on I-95, all I can remember was moving my eyes from the low-rise Robitussin manufacturing facility on the right, to dilapidated row houses on the left, to VCU’s concrete buildings on the right, then to the stately Main Street Station–its rich, brick beauty brutally robbed by an eerie, futuristic interstate–on the left, and finally, the big cigarette welcoming travelers to Philip Morris on the right.

Blink a few times, smoke up if you’re one to indulge, and continue on.  That was Richmond to me.

It wasn’t until I started reading about the Shockoe neighborhood downtown that I became interested in actually visiting the city.

Shockoe, seated on the James River and bordering the financial district to the southeast, has roots dating back to the 1600s when it was used for trading and commerce. Over the decades, it’s been restored, revitalized, and repurposed.

For someone who doesn’t own a car, it’s also a walker’s dream.

Here are some highlights on where to go and what to do while on foot in Shockoe:

  • Arrive:  Oddly, Richmond’s Staple Mill Road Station, located on the outskirts of town, has more arrivals and departures during the day than its Main Street Station.  To reach downtown by train, you will need to book your ticket to arrive at the Main Street Station. In my experience, however, trains from Washington, D.C. arrive in the morning and depart in the evening the next day.  Perfect.
  • Sleep:  Stay at the Berkeley Hotel on East Cary Street.  It’s about a seven-minute walk from the Main Street Station.  The hotel, built in 1988, looks much older style-wise and complements Shockoe’s architecture.  It’s spotless, elegant, and reasonably priced, even during the holidays.  The daytime front desk manager and concierge, Starlett, is a breath of fresh air and offers visitors efficient and much-appreciated personalized attention.
  • Eat:  You’re going to need some food and caffeine for your urban hike around Shockoe. Check out the Urban Farmhouse Market & Café a block down from the Berkeley Hotel at E. Cary and S. 13th Streets.  The café offers coffee, snacks, and lunch options in a cozy, coffeehouse environment.
  • Visit:  Conjure up your days as a student of literature and indulge your gothic sensibility by visiting the Edgar Allan Poe Museum on E. Main Street past the Main Street Station. The building where it’s housed is the oldest standing building in Richmond.
  • Hike:  Follow E. Main Street to Libby Hill Park and hike the steps to the monument. There, you will have amazing views of the James River and downtown Richmond.

I’m sure there are countless places I’ve omitted, particularly as one ventures out to other neighborhoods.  As a result, I have several reasons to return in the future.

Photos will follow soon in the photo galleries.  In the meantime, check out these links:

The Berkeley Hotel
The Urban Farmhouse & Café
The Edgar Allan Poe Museum

 

 

Eat: Amora – You’ll Fall in Love

Amora:  The Near-Empty Jar Says It All

Amora: The Near-Empty Jar Says It All

I confessed in an earlier post that I am neither a food critic nor a chef. However, in Paris, I fell in love with Amora and have been cooking with it since my return.

Amora is a strong Dijon mustard and it’s rumored that the French keep it on hand for regular use.

I experienced Amora when it was brought to me as a condiment when I ordered an omelet at a café in Paris.

I was hooked and brought a small jar of it back with me from my trip in September.

I have found several uses for Amora including omelets, salad dressings, and sandwiches. However, it wasn’t until I stumbled across a recipe from Johanna, owner of Vigor Fitness and Wellness that I thought it was time to update my salty and oily stir-fry recipes with something that had a lot of flair but little fat and less sodium.

The recipe she posted on her Facebook page called for turnip greens.  I swapped them for Bok Choy and added chicken for protein.

Here’s what you’ll need to serve two people:

2 boneless chicken breasts sliced thin
3-4 stalks of Bok Choy (with green leaves)
1/2 onion
2 cloves of fresh, crushed garlic
1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
White pepper
Sea salt

Sprinkle chicken breast slices with a pinch of salt to tenderize and get rid of the “funky chicken taste”.  In a wok, add crushed garlic and coat with 1/2 cup of low-sodium chicken broth.  Heat. Add chicken breast pieces and sauté until chicken begins to turn white.

Add onions and chopped Bok Choy with the leaves.  Add remainder of low-sodium chicken broth and white pepper.  Simmer.

When the onions, Bok Choy, and chicken are cooked through, remove from heat and pour/scoop out most of the chicken broth.

Return pan to stove and add two tablespoons of Amora Dijon mustard.  Stir.  Salt to taste and serve over steamed brown rice.

Live alone and have leftovers?  Reheat the remainder in a microwave-safe dish for 2:45 minutes and stir in a teaspoon of Amora to moisten.

This rich-tasting dish is a satisfying departure from traditional stir-fry recipes, so enjoy.

Concerned about the nutritional content of Amora?  According to Myfitnesspal.com, each teaspoon of Amora contains the following:

10 calories
1 gram of fat (zero saturated or trans)
0 grams of cholesterol
0 grams of sugar
110 mg of sodium

Want to know where to get some Amora for your kitchen if you can’t make it to the Monoprix in Paris anytime soon?  Check out these sellers on Amazon.

Bon appétit!

Weekender: Baltimore’s Fun House

Pretzel Bites - Mr. Rain's Fun House - AVAM

Pretzel Bites – Mr. Rain’s Fun House

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to visit and write about my new favorite art museum: the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.  I made mention of Mr. Rain’s Fun House, the museum’s café located on the third floor.

When I was a growing up outside of Washington, D.C., my parents took every opportunity they could to expose my brother and me to all of the free museums and exhibits the Smithsonian had to offer.  I’m a richer person today because of it.

What I remembered aside from the exhibits was the cafeteria where we’d sometimes stop for lunch. Back then, it seemed like the Smithsonian outsourced all of their food services to a cardboard factory.  Dry burgers served in styrofoam for eight dollars were not a meal.  We learned to brown bag it.

Museum food has changed and now caters to distinguished palates.

On Friday after a train ride, walk, and photo shoot, I was famished.  I knew I couldn’t appreciate any of the mesmerizing visuals at the AVAM without something in my stomach.

Roasted Apple Salad - Mr. Rain's Fun House  - Baltimore

Roasted Apple Salad – Mr. Rain’s Fun House – Baltimore

Enter Mr. Rain’s Fun House.

The “fun house” offers fresh ingredients and imaginative lunch, dinner, and brunch choices served on proper plates with proper cutlery. They also serve booze, so you can complement your meal if you get into that.

I opted for the Roasted Apple Salad that’s oddly not on the online menu.  It should be because it was sweet, light, and well-dressed.

I asked for a wine recommendation and the server suggested the Ciderworks Kingston Black Cider.  At first, I thought it was a hard cider, but it was served in a wine glass and tasted like a succulent, apple-flavored white wine.

Ciderworks Kingston Black Cider - Mr. Rain's Fun House

Ciderworks Kingston Black Cider – Mr. Rain’s Fun House

Whatever your mood, skip the tourist traps at the Inner Harbor and treat yourself to lunch or dinner at Mr. Rain’s Fun House. Don’t forget to order some pretzel bites and brown mustard.

Who said museum food had to be boring?

Drink: My Top 5 Coffee Destinations

Un Café, Gare du Nord - Paris 2013

Un Café, Gare du Nord – Paris 2013

When I was in The Hague, my friend and guide remarked that the Netherlands has the best coffee.  End of conversation.

But doesn’t every country boast that their coffee is the best?

When I was growing up, I saw TV commercials for Folger’s, Maxwell House, and Sanka coffee.  Our choices seemed fairly limited back then.

However, by the late 1990s, specialty roasts began to gain speed in the marketplace as coffee drinkers’ tastes evolved.

It’s no secret that drinking coffee has become an experience and your local café has become a destination.  In fact, the Specialty Coffee Association of America “predicted that by 2015 there would be 18,000 coffeehouses in the U.S.”*  By 2006, there were already 15,500.

Here are my favorites from here and there:  

  1. Visiting or living in Washington, DC?  Hit Peregrine on 14th Street or Filter on 20th. Peregrine serves up coffee with time and care, resulting in a drink that rivals any European café.  Filter offers espresso and French pressed coffees.
  2. La Maison du Gateau in the Lake Geneva area of Nyon, Switzerland offers fuss-free coffee, pastries, and quiches, and is located across from the train station.  Hop off the train, fuel, and go.
  3. The Outer Banks of North Carolina has the Front Porch Cafe.  There’s a reason why this coffeehouse has been voted the local favorite four times.  The rich-tasting coffee is roasted locally by Kill Devil Coffee Roasters and served by a friendly staff.  In the warm months, take your cup out front and relax on the porch.  (Website ordering is available.)
  4. Wired Puppy serves up the best coffee in Provincetown, Massachusetts.  Located on Commercial Street, it’s a happening hangout any time of the day and a convenient place to fuel before a bike ride in the dunes or a day at the beach.  (Website ordering is available.)
  5. Remember my Dutch friend?  Zebedeüs in The Hague is intimate and tucked away on a busy shopping thoroughfare.  Sit outside and order a latte.  Hungry?  The restaurant serves great lunches including omelets served on bread with salad on the side.

Tip:  If you like your coffee rich and inexpensive, check out Sweden’s Gevalia.  You can buy it at CVS or your local grocery store.

*Source:  Highbeam Business

 

 

Eat: Lo-Cal Treats from The Hague

Hopje - The Hague

Hopje – The Hague

I was fishing around my camera bag today in preparation for my trip to photograph Baltimore this weekend and came across a sweet treat from The Hague:  a Hopje.

Last month, I wrote a post about my wonderful stay at the Hotel Petit in The Hague.   Each afternoon, I’d find a personalized note from the housekeeper thanking me for my stay along with a Hopje.

According to history, the Hopje originated in The Hague.  This coffee-tasting candy is named after Hendrik Hop.  Legend has it that Mr. Hop was advised not to drink coffee. Bucking doctor’s orders, one day, he made a concoction of coffee and sugar and overcooked it.

This stove top mess resulted a thick, caramel-tasting treat.  He enlisted a neighbor’s help to create  candy lumps that could be savored, I imagine, without the negative effects associated with coffee.

Over the years, U.S. coffee chains such as Starbucks, Caribou, and Dunkin’ Donuts have capitalized on Americans’ palates for the highly caloric and have concocted drinks containing hefty amounts of sugar and fat, yet only a whiff of coffee.

For example, take the Caramel Macciato, Starbucks’ third favorite drink ranked by customers.  The calorie count clocks in at 140 for the “healthier” 12 oz. tall with nonfat milk to a staggering 340 for a venti with whole milk.  Furthermore, on top of the hundreds of calories, the venti contains 40 grams of sugar and 13 grams of fat, eight of which are saturated.

I’m neither a nutritionist nor entirely slim, but I can imagine what Mr. Hop’s doctor would say about a daily diet of venti Caramel Macciatos.

I’m also not asserting that the Hopje provides any nutritional value.

However, each piece contains 15 calories and can be an occasional caramel-coffee alternative to the gut-busting and wallet-draining “coffee” drink from a chain.

Free yourself from the excess calories of a coffee drink and enjoy a Hopje or two instead.  On occasion.

Want coffee that doesn’t come in a wrapper?  Check out my top five coffee destinations.

The easiest way to order a package is through Amazon.  However, you can also order from Hollands Best and The Sweet Life.

Special thanks to Absolutely The Hague for providing an overview of Hendrik Hop’s culinary misfortune that evolved into a fortune.

Play: Victoria Park Has Picked Up Speed

Victoria Park - London (Photo Courtesy of londonhubguide.blogspot.com)

Victoria Park – London (Photo Courtesy of londonhubguide.blogspot.com)

I’ve been a runner since I was in my late 20s.  I’ve logged 5ks, five-milers, 10-milers, and a half-marathon.  I only run now for personal satisfaction.

When I travel, I like to pack my running shoes and get out early to explore, even if I’m going to be on foot most of the day sightseeing.  Given our surprisingly sunny weather in London, I was able to strike an even balance between our daily tours of sights on concrete and cobblestone with a fast-paced and scenic sample of the lush and soul-calming Victoria Park.

The location of Victoria Park is 1.3 miles from the Bow Apartment and one of its entrances sits at the end of Grove Road, giving you options to sleep, eat, and play while in the East End.

Since I stumbled upon Victoria Park during a run (the guide book I brought didn’t give it a mention), the following are some fun facts and a link to year-round activities that will make you want to pack your tennis shoes, carefree spirit, and visit.

Fun Facts:

  • Victoria Park is London’s oldest public park.  Created in 1845, its space spans 212 acres.
  • The park is situated entirely in the borough of Tower Hamlets.
  • Victoria Park is also known as the People’s Park and locally as “Vicky Park”.
  • In a 2012 poll, Victoria Park beat 1,424 parks and green spaces, becoming the nation’s number-one park.
  • The park’s Chinese pagoda is a replica of a former pagoda that was moved from Hyde Park to Victoria Park in the 19th century, but later destroyed in World War II.
  • The park has over 4,000 trees.

What to Do and See:

  • If you are a runner,  walker, or cyclist, take advantage of the wide pavement, walkways that pass through mature trees, and flat surfaces.
  • Victoria Park has waterways, a pavilion, and hosts sporting events and concerts.  Want to keep up to date on goings-on?  Be sure to check the Tower Hamlets site for fun events during your visit.
  • Forget driving to Victoria Park.  In fact, when I visited, parking looked scarce.  Cars aren’t allowed unless you qualify for a Blue Badge permit.
  • Get there easily.  Take the Central line to Mile End and walk down Grove Road.   You’ll reach the entrance in minutes.
  • Thinking of cooking out while visiting?  Think again and take a picnic lunch or dinner.  Barbequing is not allowed in Victoria Park, so ditch the Hibachi.
  • Forget to pack a picnic and find yourself hungry while walking around and taking in the park?  Check out the Pavilion Café  or The Crown, located at the end of Grove Road near the entrance to the park.  The Crown is cozy and its seating is varied to accommodate your mood.   The pub offers a variety of traditional British dishes.  Grab a pint and enjoy.

Victoria Park is active, large, and set apart from London’s guidebook attractions.  Make sure you visit if you like outdoor activities.  Enjoy sprinting, slow walks, mature trees, pick-up games, and other outdoor activities.

Special thanks to Tower Hamlets for additional insights while staying in Bow and visiting Victoria Park.

Eat: Gettin’ Greedy in Mile End – East London

Greedy Cow - East End, London (Photo Courtesy of @greedycow - Twitter)

Greedy Cow – East End, London (Photo Courtesy of @greedycow – Twitter)

If you’re visiting London’s East End, you must eat at the Greedy Cow.  Period.

Let’s step back for a second.

A lot of first-time visitors to London may be worried about food choices given the long-held generalization that British food is bland and boring.

However, over the years, London has traded in its tarnished medal of culinary dishonor for a shiny gold star–and in many cases, several.  The city is culturally rich and there’s no better place to take advantage of its diversity than in the East End.

I mentioned in my last post that I had been traveling with my parents in London.  After a lot of walking and sightseeing, we needed a restaurant that served hearty food to accommodate everyone’s palates.

The Greedy Cow on Grove Road, located a block from the Mile End Underground Station (Central, District, and Hammersmith & City lines) offered fresh, satisfying food, a comfortable atmosphere, and choices ranging from new twists on old British favorites to the exotic.

The restaurant’s website states that its mission is to provide food that “fills your stomach without emptying your wallet”.  The Greedy Cow delivered on its promise.

We started with the fish cakes and an order of potato wedges.  The portion size was just enough to sample without all of the greasiness of traditional fish and chips.  The side condiments of garlic mayonnaise and dill sauce were great complements and didn’t weigh down the food.

On to the main dishes:  the Greedy Burgers.  The Greedy Cow serves beef that is raised in Britain, and also offers more exotic meats such as kangaroo and crocodile, to name a few.

I opted to stay a little on the safe side and ordered the Jamaican burger.  It had the kick of jerk seasoning mixed with a sweet, refreshing mango chutney.  I was overwhelmed by how clean and flavorful the burger was without the taste mixtures being too overpowering.

In addition to the new spin on old favorites, what I also liked about the restaurant was that it was intimate with well-paced service.

During our seven-day stay in Bow, we ate at the Greedy Cow twice for dinner and were not disappointed on either visit.

If you are staying in or visiting the East End and expect traditional food to be bland and unimaginative, think again.  The Greedy Cow delivers flavor, value, and pleasant service.

The Greedy Cow
2 Grove Road
London, E3
http://www.greedycow.com

Interested in snaps from London?  Visit the photo gallery.

 

 

 

Sleep: Bow Apartment in London’s East End

Bow Road - Underground

Bow Road – Underground

In my last post, I discussed some of the advantages of renting an apartment or house over staying in a hotel while on vacation.

A rental can be advantageous if you:  want creature comforts such as a kitchen or in-unit laundry; need more space if traveling with others; or are arranging a trip where you want to stay in a fixed location with opportunities to take day trips to nearby destinations.

Sometimes, you just want to stay in an unfamiliar part of a city to get away from the bustle and experience something new that the average tourist wouldn’t see.

All of the above defined our experience in Bow, in London’s East End.

The Bow district, where the Bow Apartment is located, is in the culturally rich Tower Hamlets borough of East London.  Suffering extensive damage from bombings in World War II and having a history of crime and poverty, the borough has been reinventing itself over the years and has become an attractive area to visit or call home.  In fact, nearby Stratford was selected to house Olympic Park, where the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games were held.

Bow shares the borough with nearby Canary Wharf, the redeveloped financial district of shimmering glass buildings; Whitechapel, home of the infamous “Whitechapel Murders” that took place in the late 19th century; and Mile End, to name a few.  The lush and expansive Victoria Park is also located in Tower Hamlets and offers plenty of green space for sports and relaxation.

The Bow Apartment is located less than a block from the Bow Road Underground Station on the District and Hammersmith & City lines.  It’s also a 10-minute walk from the Mile End Underground Station offering the fastest transportation to Covent Garden, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Oxford Circus.  The Bow Church DLR station, located minutes east of the Bow Apartment  offers transportation to Canary Wharf and Greenwich.  Interested in enjoying late night London while riding a double-decker bus?  The 25 bus stops in front of the Bow Apartment, runs 24 hours a day, and will drop you off in Central London.

The secure apartment is on the first floor of a historic residence with only a few steps to climb, making it perfect for those who have difficulty climbing stairs.  The main entrance and unit are secured and are accessed with separate keys.

Inside, the apartment contains two chic and well-appointed bedrooms with ample dresser and wardrobe space, a small but functional bathroom, modern kitchen, and a comfortable sofa to stretch out on after a long day of exploring.  Interested in cooking?  The apartment has a range, oven, microwave, and dishwasher.  Plates, cups, and utensils are also provided.

Nowadays, customers are demanding Wi-Fi in every rental.  Wi-Fi is included in the Bow Apartment rental and I found the signal to be strong.

One important selling point not found in many of the apartments we researched was the in-unit washer/dryer located in the kitchen.  Use of the washer/dryer is included in the rental and helps to lighten your load, so to speak, creating more room in your suitcase for souvenirs.

Finally, what made our stay particularly enjoyable was the welcome we received from the owner Babs.  Our flight arrived early on a Saturday and we were weary from our journey, not to mention exhausted from dragging our baggage halfway across the city from the airport on the Underground.

Babs accommodated our earlier check-in and gave us a detailed tour of the apartment with instructions on how to use all of the gadgets and appliances.  He also gave us his cell phone number in case of an emergency.

We only had two complaints.  While the neighborhood is plentiful with restaurants and pubs, it lacks a decent market.  We had our choice between a neglected Tesco and a mini-mart connected to a gas station.  However, we took advantage of the Tesco and Sainsbury’s in and around places we were sightseeing and brought back fruit and snacks.  We also visited the Borough Market near the Southwark Cathedral where we bought paella with chorizo and homemade meat pies to take back to the apartment.  (They also traveled well on the Underground.)

The other complaint (which is more of a suggestion) is that the owner requires the tenants to wash and dry all of the towels and linens, clean the kitchen and bathroom, and sweep the floors prior to departure.  Given the stress involved in repacking for an early flight the following day while wanting to enjoy the last night at the Bow Apartment, I’d suggest hiring a cleaning crew and either include it in the rental or give the tenant the option to choose if he or she wants to add the service or clean the apartment.

All things considered, our stay at Bow Apartment in the quirky and out-of-the way borough of Tower Hamlets provided us with an opportunity to live like a local, knock around a side of London not usually experienced by tourists, and bounce west within the city by tube and bus and even farther west by train to Wales.

Booking details can be found here.

Interested in snaps from London?  Visit the photo gallery.

Sleep: Your Home Away in London Town

Bow Apartment - London

Bow Apartment – London

A few years back, pop star Gwen Stefani’s song “Rich Girl” featured a line that talked about booking a first-class ticket to a fancy house in London town.  (I’m paraphrasing.)

Chances are, Gwen Stefani is neither reading this post, nor does she have to worry about money.  However, if you’re like me, are on a budget, and traveling with parents, you may be wondering how to maximize your experience without worrying about spending a lot.

Let’s put it out there.  The British pound’s exchange rate has been worse for Americans than the Euro’s. London is also an expensive city to visit.

Should that dissuade you from visiting and taking advantage of the history, culture, sights, and diverse gastronomy?  I’m biased because I love to travel, so I’ll say no; don’t let higher expenses stop you.

Aside from getting to London, your biggest expense will probably be sleeping in London.  You have several choices:  friends, hostels, hotels, guesthouses, or apartments.  Since I was traveling with parents, and none of us had ever been to the U.K., I wanted to set up house, so to speak, somewhere that offered space, good transportation, safety, and local flair.

Web sites like VRBO, Airbnb, and HomeAway, and Booking.com, to name a few, have exploded in popularity, offering several, often cheaper alternatives to hotels and hostels.  The sites offer anything from full-service aparthotels and studio apartments for one person, to larger apartments and homes for several.  To date, I’ve had positive experiences going the non-hotel route when staying in Brussels, Rome, Montréal, and London.

If you don’t mind doing a little research and asking questions, you can find your perfect vacation rental in London town or anywhere else you decide to visit.

Here are some tips:

  • Read reviews and cross-reference them.  If you are on one site such as Home Away, visit another like Trip Advisor to see what people are saying about the property that interests you.  Chances are, if it’s an apartment or house, reviewers tend to be honest and detailed about the location, check in/out process, and amenities.  Large hotels, on the other hand, can receive a smattering of positive and negative reviews simply because people have different experiences based on the room they’re in.
  • Use a reputable rental site such as VRBO or Home Away.  Both provide rental protection in case you need to cancel or if you arrive and the property is not as advertised.  I steer clear of Craigslist for rentals since many have been known to be scams.  You don’t want to arrive in another city halfway around the world with no place to stay.
  • Contact the owner with your questions first before booking.  Sites such as VRBO and Holiday Lettings, among others, have a contact form where you can ask a few simple questions and get a response by e-mail.
  • Be mindful of the check-in/check-out guidelines for each rental.  If your flight, for example, arrives at 7 a.m. and check-in is at 3 p.m., ask for an earlier check-in or if there’s a place to store baggage while the apartment or house is being prepared.
  • Most rentals I’ve used require a deposit for booking.  Never send cash or wire money that can’t be traced or re-claimed (e.g., money order, MoneyGram, Western Union etc.). Many proprietors in Europe, for example, ask for money to be wired to them through a bank transfer.  This process is safer because your money can be traced and you can take action to try to get a refund if you suspect fraud.  Always check with your bank first on their guidelines and ask questions about “what ifs” if you are using a wire transfer for the first time.  My experience is that transfers can cost up to $35.  It’s worth looking into to send money safely.  Other options are Paypal and Google Wallet.
  • Finally, be aware of your online “social presence”.  Airbnb, for example, asks you to create a simple profile when you register.  Property owners can get a glimpse of who you are and your interests.  Like any social media-related site you may use, impressions can be indelible.  Make sure you have an appropriate photo and description that shows you’re responsible and would be a good caretaker of a property rental.

There are certainly more and if you have any suggestions, leave them in the comments.

London town, or wherever you land doesn’t have to break the bank.  Your accommodations can even provide you with creature comforts of home if you want to just kick back and relax.  Isn’t that what vacation is for?

Up next, I’ll review our apartment rental in East London.