Category Archives: Reviews

Weekender: Not the Standard Brunch & Brew

Starr Hill Brewery - Crozet, Va.

Starr Hill Brewery – Crozet, Va.

I haven’t owned a car for six years.  It’s both a benefit and a drawback.  Not owning a car forces me to be creative and make concerted efforts to leave Washington when I can.

Charlottesville, Va., home of the University of Virginia, is about a three-hour train ride from Washington and costs a fraction to visit compared to New York or Philadelphia.  Enterprise will also arrange to pick you up at the train station so you can rent a car to see the city and points nearby like Crozet, Barboursville, Ruckersville, and Stanardsville, to name a few.

Virginia is known for its wine and it produces some of the best in the country.  However, did you know that Virginia is home to over 60 breweries with several in the vicinity of Charlottesville?

If you like brunch and beer as I do, you won’t want to miss The Standard on Main Street in Stanardsville for brunch and Starr Hill brewery in Crozet for a tour and tasting.

The Standard - Stanardsville, VA

The Standard – Stanardsville, VA
Photo Courtesy of Kris Seale

In a previous post, I stated that I am not a food critic.  What I do know is that I enjoy clean, local food served in a welcoming environment.  While its name is a bit of a misnomer, The Standard offers both.

The Standard promotes community involvement.  The day I visited with my family, meals were being served by a group of middle-school students who were raising money to go to the Galapagos Islands on a service project.  Great food and the opportunity to encourage students to explore the world while helping others?  I couldn’t have tipped enough.

After a filling and lazy brunch, we hopped in the car and headed for Crozet, which is a scenic 50 minute drive from Stanardsville.

Crozet, Va., is the home of Starr Hill brewery.  Starr Hill was founded in the late 90’s and I’ve found their products in Washington at Whole Foods Market and other restaurants and bars around town.

What marked the experience as a “must do” was the well-organized tour of the facility where you are taken through the brewing process from grain selection to distribution.  Starr Hill also offers a tasting room where you can sample their year-round and seasonal brews.

Did you grow up in the Mid-Atlantic and want to feel nostalgic?  Grab a bottle of Starr Hill malt vinegar to put on home-cooked French fries and remember those days spent on the boardwalk at the Maryland and Delaware beaches.

Charlottesville isn’t your standard college town.  Drive around and you’ll see.  Be sure, however, to ask residents about their favorite destinations.  You may find some out-of-the-way treasures like The Standard or Starr Hill brewery just a short distance from Charlottesville, Washington, and Richmond.

Also, don’t sweat not owning a car.  Get creative and get there:

The Standard
76 Main Street
Stanardsville, VA

Starr Hill Brewery
5391 Notch’d Road
Crozet, VA

Eat & Sleep: Francs and Beans

bdennisreid

bdennisreid

Switzerland can be yours for fewer francs than you may realize.

The landlocked country offers limitless opportunities for sightseeing and experiences for those who love to get out and explore the natural world.  From hiking through the snow in Leysin, to climbing a church tower in Bern or Fribourg, boredom has a scant chance of creeping in during a visit.

Ask a person what they think of when you mention Switzerland, and they’ll probably respond with:  The Alps, chocolate, knives, and watches.

However, how do you respond when the person clutches his or her proverbial purse strings and responds with “a post-vacation diet of beans”, like a friend of mine did when I mentioned I was traveling to Lake Geneva with my parents last May?

My friend’s response was somewhat fair.  According to Mercer, a human resources consulting firm, Geneva, Zurich, and Bern have found themselves in a Top 10 list of the most expensive cities for expatriates in 2013.  A quick cost-of-living comparison on Numbeo, a site that itemizes expenditures such as meals at restaurants, transportation, apartment rentals, and groceries, among others, confirmed that our destination in Lake Geneva was going to be higher than Washington, DC and much higher than coastal North Carolina where my parents live.

Even though other countries in the euro zone surround Switzerland, its form of currency is the Swiss franc, abbreviated as CHF.  Back when I was planning the trip, research confirmed that compared to the U.S. dollar, there was about a one-dollar-to-one-Swiss-franc exchange rate with a few extra pennies thrown across the Atlantic in the direction of Switzerland.  The comparison gave me some relief that the trip wouldn’t result in being “travel poor” even though goods and services are more expensive than what I was accustomed to in Washington.

I argue that frugal travelers can live rich while on vacation when they subtract expensive hotels, extravagant meals, and pricey tourist traps, and add free outdoor sightseeing excursions, low-cost cultural activities, and flavorful regional meals at cafés, sandwich shops, and walk-up food kiosks.

Minus a few meal splurges, we used our trips to the Coop and Migros supermarkets to our advantage.   First, we bought fresh fruit and non-perishables for breakfast and on-the-go snacks.  Second, several supermarkets have restaurants where we ate salads, quiches, sandwiches, and hearty meals (served on ceramic dishes and not on paper plates or in wrappers) while overlooking Lake Geneva into France.  Compared to full-service restaurant dining, we dined on fresh food for about 15-20 CHF per person.

Lodging wise, Geneva was out of the question not due to price, but availability.  Affordable hotels and apartments just weren’t available for the dates we selected.  Widening the search, I discovered Lausanne, the second-largest city on Lake Geneva.  Staying in Lausanne proved to be the best choice because it offered easy access by bus, light rail, train, and boat to the sites surrounding the Lake since it’s location is a little more than halfway between Geneva and Montreux.

Out of our choices, the Ibis Lausanne Centre won. Like any chain, I had heard good and bad things and had experienced excellent service and cleanliness in one city, and near paltry conditions in another.

The Ibis Lausanne Centre is a newer property with modern room decor, fresh bedding, wood floors cleaned daily, a large shower, and best of all, a price tag that allowed for separate rooms for my parents and me.  Much like its environs on Lake Geneva, the hotel is immaculate.  It also offers an efficient check-in/out process and coffee service in the morning that complemented our light breakfast.

As a bonus, the property throws in a public transportation pass (Lausanne only) for the duration of the stay, which came in handy for those days when we were too sore to hike from the train station uphill to the hotel via Avenue de Beaulieu.  The 3 and the 21 buses service the Lausanne Gare station and stop next to the hotel.  Also, the Riponne light rail station on the m2 line is a short walk from the hotel in a bustling shopping district and in a six stops will take you Lake Geneva.

The only complaint was that the rooms didn’t cool off during the first few days of the visit.  We were told by a front desk attendant that there was a hotel-wide outage with the air conditioning system.  However, the issue was fixed within a day and lucky for us, the remainder of the trip was cool and rainy making sleeping at night comfortable in an otherwise stuffy room.

One word about the flight cost to Geneva…I am not United Airlines’ biggest fan.  I’ve been delayed several times when traveling overseas and have found the response from employees to be lackluster as if delays are the norm and not the exception.  However, my non-stop flight from Washington, Dulles was only $950, and my parents’ flight that originated in Norfolk and connected through Dulles was around $925 per ticket, making it a cheaper destination for the time of year over other destinations such as Paris.

Therefore, consider Switzerland and rest easy knowing that you can fly, buy, eat, and sleep without becoming “vacation poor”, thus allowing you to experience all that this stunning  country offers.

In my next posts, I’ll discuss “leaving” the EU and high-altitude anxiety.

Interested in snaps from Switzerland and the Lake Geneva area?  Visit the photo gallery.

Learn: Go Dutch!

Flag of the Netherlands

Flag of the Netherlands

I enjoy tinkering with foreign languages.  When I was in high school, I started with two years of Spanish.  Having never studied a foreign tongue, I had the best introduction to Spanish language and culture that an impressionable student could experience in Señorita Burr’s classroom.  Walking into her living language environment was like stepping into a lively street celebration in a Latin American country.  Learning to Señorita Burr meant three things:  reinforcement through repetition; participating in culture days (Latin American customs, cooking, television, games, etc.); getting out there and just doing it; and conversing sin inglés.

My acquired knowledge and practice of Spanish in an English-free environment gave me the thirst and confidence to widen my language horizons.  I decided in 11th grade to switch to French since Spanish helped to form a basis for studying other Romance languages.  French was the only other foreign language my high school offered except for German, which didn’t fit into my schedule.  In addition, because of an arrangement with a high school in Wallonia, in the French-speaking region of Belgium, I was able to take my first trip abroad.

Since college, I’ve flirted with Italian and German in classroom and travel settings.  The latter left me bewildered although I enjoyed my visits to Germany and appreciated the gracious language tips I received in Munich.  To keep up with my French, I’ve purchased bootlegged copies of French in Action DVDs which are a great immersion tool and have dug up my dogeared copy of the accompanying textbook that was left behind in my parents’ attic when I moved out in my late 20s.

Having visited Belgium and the Netherlands twice each, I’ve been curious about the Dutch

Flag of Suriname

Flag of Suriname

language.  To my surprise, this West Germanic language is spoken around the world outside of the Netherlands and Belgium in areas such as Suriname, the Caribbean, small pockets in North America, and to a small extent, in Indonesia, to name a few.  Incidentally, Afrikaans, an independent yet closely related language to Dutch is spoken in South Africa and Namibia.  The language is said to be easy to learn for Dutch and English speakers and learning it can provide additional opportunities for travel and cultural expansion.

Not having the luxury of being able to immerse myself in Dutch by moving to another country, I’m going to have to settle temporarily for some basic self study until A) I can find a Meet-up group of Dutch learners and/or speakers, or B) I can travel next year.

So, where does one begin to learn the basics on the cheap without dropping a few hundred on Rosetta Stone or Berlitz?

Unfortunately, PBS doesn’t offer a Dutch in Action immersion course.  I’ve checked.

Last year, I purchased a Groupon for Livemocha and created an account.  I liked the social component because there’s an opportunity to interact with native speakers who will critique your work.  You can also get the basics by following lessons based on your language choice and even switch languages with your membership.  What I didn’t like was the amount of e-mail spam I received and the points/tokens system which was confusing and reminded me of some sort of “Weight Watchers for Language Enthusiasts” scheme.

Byki Express, a free, downloadable program, offered some great flashcards and vocabulary lists, but the interface seemed clunky, and while I like repetition for learning a language, I received too much reinforcement on my way to progressing to the next lesson.  Biki Deluxe offers more flexibility (e.g., mobile access) but at a cost of $69.  I’m not knocking the learning system, nor have I tried it.  I’d just like to find something cheaper that works well on my aging Smartphone.

Since I wanted to gain exposure using available resources without paying a lot, I did a search on what would be needed to master Dutch if someone wanted to move to the Netherlands.  Simple enough.  I happened upon Expatica which led me to Dutch Grammar.  It was there that I found basic courses in a clutter-free format to learn (with mp3 audio) basic pronunciation and grammar.  Dutch Grammar is a no-nonsense site that is rich in content.

My search continued.  I love YouTube, not only for movie and music clips, but also for educational reasons.

Taalhuis offers some great resources that go over Dutch-language basics by way of YouTube videos with a recap of vocabulary words at the end of each lesson.  The lists also cover the articles for nouns de and het that can only be learned through memorization.

Where does this all lead and how does it connect to immersion learning?  Our world is getting smaller and more personal due to the Internet, particularly, social media.  Not having the luxury of taking time off to live in a foreign country is a valid roadblock to immersion learning.  However, you can log onto Facebook, Twitter, Livemocha, or other interactive site and connect with others who can comment, correct, and add confidence to your language skills.   You can find or start a Meetup group in your area.

Whatever your reasons for learning a new language, know this:  you will learn a lot if you get out there, try, and humbly ask for help; apologize up front for not being fluent, but eager to communicate;  and ask how you can improve.  Have patience and diligence and the language will follow.

I’m taking these words to heart on my adventure into learning Dutch.

Dank-u en tot later. 

Eat: The 100+ Year Old Sandwich

I’m neither a foodie nor a cook.  I enjoy exploring regional cuisine when I travel, but my tastes are fairly simple.  I like a lot of flavor, clean food, and a small price tag.

It has been said that the Netherlands consumes the most amount of bread in Europe.  I also know that during visits to Paris and Belgium, I’ve consumed more bread than when I’m at home.  Europe can be difficult for a gluten-free individual, but there are options.

The Dutch are known for their broodjes which are sandwiches.  You can also find broodjes in Flanders as I experienced on a trip to Antwerp, Belgium a few years ago.  Typical broodjes consist of meat, cheese, and toppings, like most sandwiches in the U.S.  Occasionally, as I experienced, a broodje can contain a light meat or cheese kroket or croquette, if you’re more familiar with the French variation.

On my trip to The Hague, I was lucky to experience a Dopmeijer broodje.  Dopmeijer’s is an out-of-the-way broodje shop that reminded me of a friendly neighborhood deli I’d find in Philadelphia or New York.  It is also an institution in The Hague.  It’s been operating for 104 years and in 2009, Dopmeijer’s celebrated with the publication of a book containing newspaper clippings and photos of the century-old shop.

My new friend and gracious tour guide Paul took me to Dopmeijer to experience a little bit of local food history.  There, we met John, one of the owners.  Ravenous, John introduced me to a variety of broodjes as well as a homemade goulash that was stomach-warming and spicy—perfect for cool and overcast September day.

My favorite broodje was the bal, which reminded me of a small meatball sandwich mixed with several spices, perhaps garlic and cinnamon.  The closest taste I could compare it to was a meatball I bought from Whole Foods that contained Moroccan spices.

I was still a little hungry, so I ordered a meat kroket broodje.  It was also rich with flavor and surprisingly light.  I’m not a huge fan of mayonnaise, so John made my broodjes with brown mustard and pepper.  You can have your broodje with either condiment and both are popular.

My friend Paul asked if I wanted to try something new.  Since I’m always up for an adventure, I agreed.

I then sampled a cow’s udder broodje.  Now, I’ll preface my reaction with the fact that I’m pretty funny about food textures.  For example, as much as I wanted to try the tartare broodje, I politely declined since I don’t care for the consistency of raw meat.  In hindsight, and for adventure’s sake, I should have gone for it.  Lesson learned.

The cow’s udder broodje was an experience.  On one hand, it tasted surprisingly good when mixed with mustard and pepper.  On the other, it had a chewy consistency as well as coloring similar to deli-sliced turkey.  My reaction was a 50/50 mix, but by then, I had had two bal broodjes plus the goulash and was becoming full.

The service and hominess at Dopmeijer is welcoming and efficient.  The shop is unpretnetious and you can eat cheap if you’re watching your money.

Dopmeijer is an institution in The Hague and I was glad I was introduced.

If you are in The Hague and want to try something new that comes with a long-standing history, stop by Dopmeijer.  You can easily access it by the Van Musschenbroekstraat tram stop or within a few blocks from the Holland Spoor station.  Also, be sure to ask John if you can purchase a book of clippings for nine Euros celebrating the 100th anniversary of Dopmeijer’s.

Dopmeijer
Rijswijkseweg 151
2516 HB Den Haag
Web site:  www.dopmeijer.net

Interested in snaps from The Hague and Amsterdam?  Visit the photo gallery.

Sleep: Hotel Petit in The Hague

Hotel Petit - Den Haag Courtesy of Hotel Petit's Web site at: hotelpetit.nl

Hotel Petit – Den Haag
Courtesy of Hotel Petit’s Web site at: hotelpetit.nl

My trip last month to The Hague was a result of a mishmash of several different possibilities location-wise.  Europe is like that.  You can get anywhere by train from your landing and/or stationing points, which makes it difficult to choose where to go and what to see.  I’m not one for grand excursions lasting weeks, so time and careful planning were of the essence.

I started in Paris as my landing and departure point.  At the last minute, I decided to go northeast to The Hague in the Netherlands.

I had only visited the Netherlands once.  I was in Amsterdam, we called the country Holland, and the currency used was the gilder.  A day trip to Amsterdam was my minor segue into Dutch culture.  I was 17.

For my second visit, I settled on The Hague, a city located in the southwest part of the Netherlands.  It offered salty air from the North Sea; reasonable pricing on hotels, restaurants, and shopping; and pristine streets.

Pinning a dart on an Orbitz hotel location and only having days to rearrange my itinerary, I decided on the Hotel Petit in The Hague.  It looked good from the reviews and I like it when hotel managers respond to Tripadvisor rants and raves.  The hotel could also accommodate my last-minute change of plans.

I couldn’t have made a better choice.

According to their Web site, the hotel is comprised of two mansions built in 1895.  I like old things and collect old photos, postcards, and vinyl records.  At home, I live in a pre-war building.  I’m used to character, quirks, and a lot of historical charm.

Emma, the manager, as well as all of the employees at the Hotel Petit couldn’t have been more welcoming.  I received personalized B&B service at a Best Western chain hotel.

My room was on the third floor and had a single bed; a few creature comforts such as a TV, refrigerator, and snacks; a large bathroom; and strong Wi-Fi service that was included in the stay.  I was checked in quickly and promptly given an orientation to The Hague.

The service and hospitality at the Hotel Petit goes far beyond a hello, nod, or a Hopje (coffee-flavored hard candy) laid on the pillow.  Becoming oriented to a new town is difficult, especially if you don’t know the language.  Yes, everyone in The Hague seems to speak English as it’s the center of politics (local and international) for the Netherlands, but learning a few phrases in Dutch can prove to be helpful when attempting to blend in and meet people.

I immediately asked about local transportation to the beach and city center.  The Hotel Petit is not located in the city center, but is close to everything whether traveling by foot, tram, bus, or cab.

I was issued an OV Chip Card for bus and tram service for five Euros along with instructions on how to reload it and where.  Many grocery stores allow you to “top up” your OV Chip Card and you can also add money at the kiosk at Centraal Station.  I was also sold a map for an additional five Euros and given explicit directions to where I wanted to go, eliminating the need for my iPhone other than for Instagramming my way around town.

My stay of four nights was peaceful and comfortable.  The Hotel Petit is located in the heart of the embassies, which made me feel at home like I was in Washington.  From a customer service standpoint, I had my tourist-related questions answered.  I was pointed to the 24 bus to get to city center; given directions to get to Scheveningen, the well-known beach resort for The Hague; and taught how to navigate the tram system, located four blocks away.  (The Line 3 to Loosduinen will get you close to the Hotel Petit according to Google maps, but the 24 bus will get you closer.  I learned this quickly.)

I only ate breakfast once at the hotel.  It was simple, fresh, and ample.  A few posters on Tripadvisor called it expensive, but at 10 Euros (including a rich-tasting coffee) I found it to be more than reasonable.

For the value, I found the Hotel Petit to be safe, clean, and quirky in its old-world-yet-fashionable way.

One morning, I left the hotel late and got a glimpse of a room that faced the rear of the hotel.  Not only did it have a larger bed, it also had a sofa and small terrace with double doors.  I was told by hotel staff that the rooms in the back were more peaceful than the rooms in the front where I was staying because they overlooked a small garden and not the street.

Happy with my stay, I told Emma that I’d be booking a room in the rear of the hotel on my return visit.

Note:  Concerned about the hike to the third floor while staying in a historic building?  There is elevator service at the Hotel Petit if you need assistance.  While I took the stairs every day to my third-floor room, it was nice to know that elevator service was available for hauling luggage.

Interested in snaps from The Hague and Amsterdam?  Visit the photo gallery.

Drink: Jenever Is Not Jennifer

Bittenhof, The Hague, NL

Bittenhof, The Hague, NL

You may find yourself in The Hague on a rainy night in September.

However, you’re on vacation so it really doesn’t matter, does it?  Don’t let weather dictate what you want to do or see.  The Dutch still find a way to maneuver in a downpour, even on bikes, so blend and carry an umbrella.

You may be in need of a warming beverage.  Coffee is always an option and the Dutch are proud that they make a strong brew.  The coffee I had each morning at breakfast was intense and satisfying.

I also like a good, strong drink.  Enter Jenever.

Jenever is a Juniper-flavored style of Dutch gin.  I am on board with this because it sounds fancy even though I travel on a modest budget, and because I’ve developed an appreciation for gin.  Jenever also tastes like Ketel One vodka which is a bonus if you enjoy and can afford to go top shelf.

The key is determining what you want to enjoy:  the oude (old, yet aromatic and mellow) or jonge (clear, yet not forceful in taste.  I tasted both and have a preference for the oude.  

I experienced Jenever at the Hotel Des Indes.  It was served according to tradition:  chilled in a small curvy glass and filled to the top so you can see the meniscus.  You can chase it with Grolsch beer, according to custom.  However, it’s not necessary to do so.

Take in the rich history of the Hotel Des Indes with its period design and swank bar and restaurant.

Later, stroll by the Bittenhof, which is across a small park from the hotel.  Still raining?  Taking in the stately building will warm you as much as Jenever.

Interested in snaps from The Hague and Amsterdam?  Visit the photo gallery.