Enjoying St. Pete

February 21, 2016

In late December, W & I headed South to spend some time in St. Petersburg, Florida.  We went down with family who highly recommended the city.  While we spent most of the vacation sitting on the beach or by the pool, we make time on Saturday to wander around downtime and spend some time at the Saturday Morning Market as we are fans of farmer’s markets and we’d heard lovely things.

The market was amazing.  Every type of produce you could imagine was available for purchase.  The colors were almost overwhelming.  I was so tempted to buy, but we were leaving the next day and I knew most of it wouldn’t survive the drive home.

We did make time while there to eat.  Aside from all the fruits, veggies, breads and pasta, there were a large number of stalls selling prepared foods.  Again, the variety was amazing.  Beyond the typical things you would expect, there were empanadas, flat breads, Thai food, crepes and Ethiopian.

The other side of the market is full of craft stalls and clothing shops with performers at various intervals around the exterior.  I fell in love with a sustainably focused booth that was selling palm frond hats (one may have come home with me).  There were gorgeous terrariums and yummy canned goods.

After we finished wandering, we drove around the corner to the Brocante Vintage Market. It is 15,000 sqft filled with vintage goodies.  It opens for one weekend once a month and we just happened to pick the perfect weekend.  I adored the chair and side table above, but we ended up taking home only a few gifts.

We’ve seen amazing photos of the street art downtime and know there were so many places on our list we didn’t get to see.  Our time there was so short, we can’t wait to go back.

Our days here have assumed a pattern: eat, sit in the sun, swim, eat, walk, eat, sleep, repeat.  I can tell you, there are worse ways to spend a day!  We come through the Ambar lobby several times a day on the way to breakfast and lunch and I love how pretty it is.  Everything is tastefully done.

Grand Bahia Principe Ambar - Front Desk

And there really are orchids everywhere.

Grand Bahia Principe Ambar - Orchids

I think I know these folks:

Grand Bahia Principe Ambar - Waiting for Dinner

After sitting by the pool for three hours, the main dining room is a nice break from the sun, and the food is fantastic.  The sheer size of the place is amazing.  Wayne and I figured out today that they probably serve 1,000+ people at each meal.  And that’s just at this buffet in the Ambar section of the resort – there are five other sections as well.

We went early one day while it was still slightly empty and the never ending tables have a Shining-like feeling about them…slightly creepy?  This picture shows maybe a quarter of the dining room size:

Grand Bahia Principe Ambar - Dining Room

The food itself is just amazing. Again, anything you can imagine is probably available to you.  To give you an idea, today I had avocado soup as my appetizer. So yummy! After we ate, I snuck over to take some pictures of the displays so you can get an idea of how artfully they are put together.  They really do have some talented chefs.

Grand Bahia Principe Ambar - Food

This was a section that was all micro-cuisine.  I skipped most of it as I couldn’t really tell what was in it (except that it contained a good amount of caviar), but it was awfully pretty to look at.

Grand Bahia Principe Ambar - Food

A close up of one of the displays above:

Grand Bahia Principe Ambar - Food

Even the salad bar is decorated:

Grand Bahia Principe Ambar - Food

And the fruit:

Grand Bahia Principe Ambar - Food

And the desserts…oh my goodness they are yummy.  It’s lovely that most things are offered in such small servings – it allows each of us to try a variety every night.

Grand Bahia Principe Ambar - Desserts

Check out the baskets made of sugar:

Grand Bahia Principe Ambar - Desserts

Every meal is an experience in itself.

Here we are….all dressed up to head to dinner:

Grand Bahia Principe Ambar - Waiting for Dinner

And having a drink afterward.  Cheers!

Grand Bahia Principe Ambar - Drinks

One good thing we noticed recently: the resort is actively trying to conserve energy.  There is a slot by the door in each room that holds your key.  When you depart, you take it with you and the air conditioning and lights turn off.  When you return, simply pop the key back in and everything comes on as it was when you left.  Additionally, my mom discovered early on that your air conditioning will not work if the balcony door is open.  Very smart.  The resort also uses mostly energy-efficient bulbs (this causes the slight yellow color in some of the photos above).

I was concerned about the amount of plastic wasted but they use glass in all the restaurants, bars, and lobbies.  I’ve seen lots of people with their own mugs which the staff is happy to fill instead of using disposables.   We found recycling bins by the beach which makes me hopeful that they recycle at the resort as well.

We’ve been watching the staff a bit and (trying at least) to chat with them.  We have noticed that quite a few of the people who serve for breakfast also serve lunch, and dinner.  Dad talked to a porter who explained that he lives 8 hours from here.  He comes and works 12 days straight, 12 hours per day.  Then he gets three days off to go home and see his family.  The up side for him is that room and board are provided while he is on the property.

I read online that the median annual income on the island is around $9,300 compared to the $47,000+ in the US.   Although the resort is all-inclusive, tipping is considered polite and most people leave tips for good service.  We guessed that based on the difference above, 1 USD left for the staff here equates to around a $8 tip in the US.  It does put life at home in perspective to see these people who must never get a vacation spend their days and nights catering to folks like us who are enjoying theirs.

I can’t possibly end this on such a serious topic, so here’s what has been amusing me this week:  I’ve been catching lots of mis-translations that just make me giggle.  “Peanuts Butter” on toast anyone?  How about “Syrup in Pears” for dessert or “Semi-cold Strawberry”?  My mom found the sign below which reminded Wayne and I both of the Bloggess and her slide mug (prior warning: although she is hilarious, but her blog is not for, shall we say, sensitive readers).

Grand Bahia Principe Ambar - Pool Sign

I also read a large section of the hotel information who told us exactly what to do in case of a “Hurican.”  Fun 🙂

Over the past six months, we’ve been primarily focused on growing our little soap company.  As a result, we’ve had little quiet time, never mind vacation time.  Every trip has been for a festival, market, or show and has been full of places to be and things to do.   Before we decided Wayne was going to leave his job to focus on the business full time, we booked a trip to the Dominican with my parents.  Although it’s now not the ideal situation, the timing turned out perfectly.  We both needed a break after the craziness of the holidays and this trip couldn’t have come soon enough.

This was our first time visiting the Dominican, and our first time at an all-inclusive resort.  I was bit nervous about both as, although I enjoy travel, I am very much a girl who finds significant change to be a bit stressful.

We are staying at the Grand Bahia Principe in Punta Cana.  Specifically we are in the Ambar section which is adults-only.  It sounds sort of risque, but it just means there are only big people running around making noise – all the little people are located in the other sections of the resort.

It is a HUGE resort.  I read online that they can have up to 8,000 guests and employs 1,500 staff members! There are several lobbies on the property, and, all of them are grand and gorgeous.

Main Lobby - Grand Bahia Principe

Ambar Lobby

The island itself is nothing if not lush and the resort plays up that lushness with plant lined walks that are manicured to perfection.  There are three main walkways that are all lined with palm trees…

Grand Bahia Principe - Walkway

…gorgeous plantings (there are orchids everywhere)…

Driftwood Planting

…and even statues.

Grand Bahia Principe - Statue

Our room is huge.  It is officially the largest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in.  We have a king bed, a separate sitting area, and a couch with tons of room to spare.    We’ve also had several small surprises since we’ve been here.  The first night we had towels formed into kissing swans and covered in flower petals.  Last night we had small flowers lining the sink in the bathroom.  So pretty.

And then there are the pools.  Yep, plural.  I believe there are five on the property – all identical.

Grand Bahia Principe - Pool

One of the benefits of being in the Ambar section is the proximity to the beach. Most of the trees below are actually in the sand and there is only a short wall separating the pool area from the beach.  Ambar also has a small cabana on the sand where the spa offers massages.

Grand Bahia Principe - Pool

Although there are waitresses who constantly walk around to take your drink orders, this a bit hard to manage once you’re actually in the pool.  The resort clearly thought of that and put in a swim up bar in the middle section of each pool.

Grand Bahia Principe - Swim Up Bar

Finally, there’s the beach. The water is a bit rougher than one would hope, but it a sparkling blue/green.

Grand Bahia Principe - Beach

The water and beach contain quite a bit of seaweed, but that doesn’t seem to stop people from walking along the shore, and even going for a quick swim.  A small portion of the water is roped off for the resort and for swimming.  Anyone who wanders outside the ropes in the water runs the risk of being run over by one of the endless water taxis.

Mom and I took a stroll today and enjoyed the sand, sun, and (some of) the sights.  It seems that most of the beaches here are topless – reminded me a bit of France.  It’s just a bit shocking if you don’t expect it, but you adjust quickly.  I was warned that there are nude beaches close by…topless is plenty sharing for me thanks.

Here’s a quick shot standing in the water and looking back toward the area surrounding the resort.  I love how blue the sky is.

Grand Bahia Principe - View from Beach

There are quite a few restaurants across the property, and a main dining room close to each lobby.  The dining rooms (and the included buffets) are huge.  There is no end to the variety of food available.  For breakfast you can have anything from eggs to pancakes, to fried plantains, a selections of meats and cheeses, cereal, oatmeal, yogurts, juices, and fruit galore.  Really. You could eat there every day for a month (and I am sure people do) and never get bored.

As we’ve only been here a few days, we’ve only tried a few restaurants.  Last night was the highlight so far.  We visited Don Pablo and ate a truly gourmet meal.  Salads with balsamic vinegar and soft cheeses, perfectly cooked fish, and bananas flambe which were made by a chef beside our table.  Pair that with unlimited wine and a fantastic cocktail (passion fruit juice and rum anyone?) and the whole experience was pretty heavenly.

All of that to see and do, and what have I been looking at constantly?  Here’s the view from my chair by the pool:

My view from a chair at the pool

And this guy.  While I’m basking in the sun, he’s constantly hiding from it.  To each their own, right?

My view from a chair at the pool

Although it sounds close to perfect, there are some definite downsides.  Very few people speak English and since I know very little Spanish, it makes communication a bit challenging.  I was surprised at first and thought that English would be something the staff would learn, but as I walk around the resort, I hear a smattering of French, German, and a few Eastern-European languages that I can’t identify.  Learning English alone probably won’t help them much.  To make up for the language barrier, the staff are incredibly gracious and patient.

Our second challenge has been the noise.  Since alcohol is unlimited, people get rowdy.  I don’t necessarily mind that as long as I’m able to remove myself from the noise when I’m done listening to it, but it turns out the walls in the rooms are incredibly thin.  We’ve already had one neighbor who likes to blast music while showering – which he does several times a day.  He was replaced today with three guys who should be tons of fun to listen to after the super bowl party tonight.

We’ve had great weather, we love the pool area, and everyone has been very welcoming.  Not too shabby for a first time visit to the Dominican.

This past weekend Wayne and I headed to Atlanta to relax a bit.  My father turned a big number (I will not share here out of respect) and decided that the only thing he wanted for his birthday was to swim with sharks.  As it turns out, that’s not too hard to do in Georgia.

Ocean Voyager

The Georgia Aquarium is the world’s largest and boasts a tank of 6.3 million gallons.  They offer a program called Journey with Gentle Giants.  Basically, you are given the opportunity to dive with a small group through the tank that holds many species including the amazing Whale Sharks and Manta Rays.  Of course, my dad jumped at the opportunity which is how we came to find ourselves at the Aquarium early Saturday afternoon to witness the fun.

The huge tank mentioned above has an acrylic tunnel that runs literally right through the middle.  It is a main feature of the Ocean Voyager exhibit and as you walk through, you are surrounded on all sides and above by fish, sharks, and manta rays.

After the participants were whisked away for their tour and to get suited up, our amazing guide (and volunteer) Karl took us into the tunnel to wait for our first view of the divers.   We could see bubbles coming from the far side of the tank, then slowly but surely the divers made their way over the top of the tunnel.

Divers Arriving

Although we had seen them earlier, it was fascinating to watch the Manta Rays in proximity to the divers.  It really puts their size in perspective.  They average 13 feet across.  The aquarium’s site says one of their females originally arrived at 8 feet across and weighed approximately 425 pounds!  So large, yet amazingly graceful – they appear to be flying underwater.

Manta RayThe second species of particular interest is the Whale Sharks.   They are totally shark – not whale at all – but get their name from their sheer size.  They are the largest living fish species and have been known in the wild to get as large as 41 feet and 47,000 pounds!  The sharks living at the Georgia Aquarium still boast 24 feet each – and there are four in total (two pairs).  The exist in captivity only in this aquarium and in Asia.

Whale Shark

(I was dying to tell the divers to look up….could you imagine seeing that directly above you?!?)

After the divers swam over the tunnel,  we headed to the viewing area to watch and participate in their experience in the main part of the tank.  The divers each approached the window and many interacted with the friends, family, and children hanging out by the side.  Here’s mom and dad:

Mom and Dad at the Atlanta Aquarium

And dad hanging out with the other divers:

Dad at the Georgia Aquarium

After playing around a bit, the divers headed away from the window….

Divers Departing

…and sat on the bottom of the tank in a group.

Divers on the tank floor

This is when the Manta Rays decide to have some fun.   There are no words that can accurately describe watching this, so I shot a quick video.  Keep your eye toward the top of the video.

It almost makes you giddy.  They just look like they are having a blast!  A couple of times I watched them swoop down right over the diver’s heads.

Karl took us on a  fantastic tour while waiting for Dad to finish up and we even got to watch the Beluga whale feeding (any Raffi fans out there?).  The aquarium offers a surface swim program as well as the dive program which Wayne and I may brave at some point.

I’m pretty sure it was a successful birthday and we will all be talking about it for many years to come.

For a week or so, I had been told that my sister, Sara, had a surprise for me for my birthday.  No one would provide any information (in spite of my best efforts).  I was told simply to show up at my parent’s house on Friday by 3:30pm and we would leave.  It was only after arriving at Mom’s that Sara told me we were going to a on farm dinner that included a tour of of a farm in the Greensboro area.  It was the Goat Lady Dairy! Such an amazing choice…I was terribly excited.

We found the farm with little problem as it was located just a short distance from where Wayne grew up.  We arrived in time for hors d’oeuvres on the porch – radish, boursin, and chive tartines.  Yum.  I wandered around a bit and took a few pictures before we started the tour.  Here’s a shot of the garden.

Garden

The whole place has such a lovely, idyllic feeling.  It’s relaxing just being there.

To one side of the garden there is a small island of flowers meant to attract predatory insects.  Tucked in the flowers was a top bar hive!  It was the same hive that we have in our yard, but this one wasn’t painted.  I talked to Steve, one of the famers, for a short time asking him about the hives.  It turns out they have a beekeeper come in.  The bees in that hive are from a swarm that was found in Greensboro.  He said they’ve have no problems with the hive or bees at all except that a high wind did blow the hive down once and did a bit of damage, but he was able to piece everything back together.

Top Bar Hive

After a few minutes, the tour began.  We started with the older does.  While Steve was talking and telling the story of the farm, the goats kept nudging his hand looking for attention.

Steve with the Goat

Wayne made friends with one goat through the gate.

Wayne and the Goat

After finishing with the older goats, we headed down the hill to see some of the babies.  Steve talked a bit about how goats like to be at the highest place.  They (mostly) cooperated and climbed up to show off a bit.

Goat on High

He then lifted a few of the babies over the gate and we got to chase them around:

Chasing Kids

And then we got to hold a few:

Sara, Nate, and a Baby Goat

Wayne made another friend.

Wayne holding a Goat

A few people even got to bottle feed.

Bottle Feeding a Goat

After visiting with the goats, we headed to the garden and the chicken coop.

Coop

I was fascinated by these chickens.  I hope someone can tell me the breed.  Bantams maybe?

Chicken

Here’s a shot looking from the coop back toward the house.  Beautiful.  Facing back toward the house

After the tour we wandered back inside the main building for dinner.  The table settings were lovely with flower arrangements in the center of each.

Table Setting

We started with a cheese plate.  Wow.  There were four different cheeses and a pistachio relish in the middle.  The first cheese (at the top) is a chevre with garlic and basil.  Moving clockwise there was a Cr0ttin – a blooming rind cheese that tasted like a mild brie.  Next up was Sandy Creek, another blooming rind cheese marbled with grape vine ash.  Finally there was a Smokey Mountain Round – a soft cheese that was smoked over apple wood.

My favorite was the Crottin, but I’m a big brie fan.  Wayne adored the Smokey Mountain Round.  It was intensely smoked.  Steve shared that Emeril had used it on one of his shows to make scalloped potatoes.

With the cheese course we had a Haw River Valley Chardonnay from Grove Vineyard in NC.   I’m not usually a big wine fan, but I found it rather tasty.

Cheese Course

Next up was an North African Kale and Chickpea soup.  So yummy…with some spice and cinammon.

Kale Soup

And then a salad.  It had a fresh vinaigrette and was topped with farmers cheese.

salad

The entree was a pot pie.  Everyone else had free range chicken and shiitake.  Wayne and I had veggie versions of the same thing.  The shiitake were from a partner farm – Rotting Log Farm.  The pie was topped with a southern style biscuit topping.  Such fantastic comfort food.

Entree - Pot Pie

The meal ended with chocolate cupcakes that were topped with pink peppercorn frosting and candied rose petals.  Not only was it quite pretty, it was such an interesting experience to taste the delicate, sweet rose petals juxtaposed with the burst of the peppercorns.

Cupcake

After dinner everyone was given a goat cheese truffle (I still haven’t tried mine…saving it for a special moment) and coffee and tea was served on the porch.

I must say, it was one of the best birthday celebrations I can remember.  Although we were exchausted, I was sad to leave.  Here’s a shot looking back at the building from the car.  Doesn’t it look inviting?

Goodnight Goat Lady

I am (of course) jealous of what the Goat Lady Dairy has been able to achieve.  I also do find it quite inspiring and I’m so glad we’re on the path toward this kind of life.

Many, many thanks to Sara for such an amazing evening.

Vietnamese in Charlotte

March 18, 2011

So, Lang Van is one of my all time favorite restaurants.  I’m ashamed to say that although I’ve mentioned it here, I’ve never really written a full fledged post, so I decided it was definitely time.

As background, a friend brought me here when I was in high school.  I added it up in the car this morning and even when I remove time while I was away at college and a few years when Wayne and I lived in the Durham/Chapel Hill area, I’ve still been visiting this restaurant for 10 years!  Feeling slightly old now….

I must also say that the restaurant does not look like much.  I remember when I took my mom.  She’s ever so slightly picky and actually refused to eat when we sat down based on the look of the place.  By the end of the meal she was picking food off other people’s plates and said commenting quietly about how good it was.

Lang Van - Charlotte, NC

Here’s the interior.  We arrived early for lunch, so it was one of the rare times that the place isn’t packed with people.

As you may be able to tell since I’ve been visiting this place for 10 years, I am a creature of habit.  Although I have tried several dishes on the menu (and never had anything that I didn’t adore!), I frequently return to the same option.  So much so that the owner knows my order and usually asks as we sit down if that’s what I like.  The answer is yes more often than not.

We always start with fresh rolls with tofu.  They are literally the best fresh rolls I’ve ever had.  The tofu is perfectly done, there is lots of flavor, and they come with fantastic peanut sauce for dipping.

I usually have the pineapple fried rice after my rolls.  I had this one of the first times I came and have loved it ever since.  The pineapple is fresh and you can definitely tell.  The tofu is amazing, and the veggies are always crisp.   Plus, the dish is gorgeous when it comes out!

Wayne (who will tell you he’s not a creature of habit), usually gets the Asparagus.  Although not as pretty as what I order, its still just as tasty.

We end the meal with the peanut cookies they always bring with the check.   One of these days I imagine I’ll feel more adventurous and try out something new.  In the meantime, our usual never seems to get old.

If you’re in Charlotte and you haven’t been to Lang Van, you’re missing out!

Atlanta – Lazy Sunday

March 6, 2011

Day two of my stay with Sara in Atlanta was a Sunday – a rather lazy Sunday as it turned out.  I was there for a conference, so we were staying in style (at the Four Seasons no less!).

The conference ended at noon, so we left the hotel in search of food.   We chose a little place nearby called the South City Kitchen.  It’s all southern cuisine with a bit of a twist.  We both had BLTs (mine sans bacon) that came with goat cheese fried green tomatoes and homemade chips.  Yum.  It was followed by what I must say the best banana pudding I’ve ever had.  (How can you go to a Southern style restaurant and not have banana pudding?!?)

After eating, a walk was in order.  A fellow conference attendee had told me about a park only five blocks from the hotel that he said was nice.  Nice turned out to be a huge understatement.  Meet Piedmont Park.

All told, the park is 189 acres and was originally purchased in 1887 by the Gentlemen’s Driving Club who used it for expositions and fairs.  In 1904, the city of Atlanta purchased the property and set about restoring it.  As the public use of the park increased and the city budget decreased, the park fell into disrepair.  In 1989 a group of citizens founded the Piedmont Park Conservancy – a non profit dedicated to maintaining the park.  The park now includes: a sports area, a track, walking trails, tennis courts, a pond, a pool, picnic facilities, and playgrounds.  I imagine I’m leaving out a few of the amenities as these are only the ones we saw throughout the afternoon.

This is what greeted us as we entered the park.  It’s so lovely to see the splash of color this time of year.  It reminds you that spring is, in fact, on its way.

This is the sports area of the park.  We stopped for a bit to watch a game of what can only be described as touch Frisbee.  🙂

One thing we noticed very quickly was an amazing quantity of dogs.  We spent a bit guessing at the dog to person ratio.

And then we found at least a partial reason for the quantity of dogs.  It is the mecca of all dog parks.  The size was incredible.

And it appears to be all self regulated.  We saw very few problems while there.  There was even a small dog park that hosted dogs under 30 pounds.

Sara and I stood by the fence for quite some time watching the dogs romp and play.  It’s so fun to see them so happy!

Up above the small dog park were a few benches and we sat for a bit, watched the dogs, and enjoyed the sun.  At our feet we saw this:

I can’t quite decide if it says dogs or pups, but either way it seems fitting.

After getting our fill of the dogs, we followed the path of the park along to the green space area.  Unlike the sports portion, here there were people just lounging – having picnics, playing soccer, or just sleeping.

On the outside of the walking trail we came upon a small garden.

There wasn’t much planted yet except for a bit of lettuce, but I was incredibly jealous of the eco playhouse that came equipped with its own rainwater catchment system.

While walking we had to pay attention to avoid the bikers, roller bladers, etc that came zooming down the track.  I had to stop when I saw this guy come up and snap a picture.  The bell on his bike blew bubbles!

I took this picture looking from the far end of the park back up into the city.  So pretty.

This little girl was just too fabulous for words.

As we rounded the corner to head back up toward downtown, I heard drums.  We wandered over to find a small drum circle!  I adore listening/watching drum circles.  The one in Asheville is my favorite so far and I miss it as it’s still too cold for it to be up and running.  Here are a few short videos:

After visiting with the drum circle for quite some time, we wandered back toward the hotel.  On the way we ran into an interesting party of sorts on the lawn, a skating rink/bar, a roller blading obstacle course, and many more interesting characters.

As sad as it is, I have no pictures of our memorable dinner.  Sara (who did amazing research for this trip!) found a little place close to the hotel called Pasta Da Pulcinella.  Its a small house that has been modified into a restarant and includes a large magnolia tree in the front around which they have built a lovely deck.  We sat outside and enjoyed the most amazing dinner.  I had risotto that was perfect and Sara had a Caesar salad and linguine with a garlic cream sauce and mixed vegetables.  Their pasta is all handmade.  We finished with a creme brulee and french press coffee.  Wow.  We were full enough that another walk was in order and we wandered around the block before returning back to the hotel for bed.

And here’s my goodbye to Atlanta – the view from our room.  We had a wonderful time and I hope to visit again soon.