Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

California

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I belong to a book club that read a lovely little book last year called “Dear Bob and Sue.” This book tells the story of Matt and Karen Smith’s travels to all 59 U.S. National Parks written as a series of emails to their friends, Bob and Sue. The book is funny, irreverent, unpredictable, and sarcastic – all in the spirit of humor. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy reading this book, I got some great travel ideas from it. I learned about the “Majestic Mountain Loop,” a three-day trip where you can visit Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, and Yosemite all in one fell swoop. I was sold!

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My husband and I flew into Fresno, California from Dallas and rented a car there. Fresno is a small airport and proved very convenient to getting a rental car and starting off on our merry way. We stopped for a wonderful lunch outside Fresno in Sanger and headed up the mountains to Sequoia National Park and the Wuksachi Lodge. The drive was spectacular! We went from wildflowers, farmland, and sunny, citrus groves to cloud-covered mountains and snowy roads in less than two hours.

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On our first day in Sequoia National Park, we visited the Lost Grove (the densest concentration of sequoias in the park) and General Sherman – my “must see!”  The General Sherman Tree is the largest living organism on the planet and the largest living tree in the world. It was just as magnificent as I had imagined! If you want to feel small and insignificant, just stand at its base and gaze up at its top 275 feet above you. I stood and wondered about all that this tree has lived through and witnessed in its 2200 years. If only it could talk…

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The next day we left for Kings Canyon National Park. The two parks intersect each other so you go from one to the other without much fanfare. We started at the Kings Canyon Visitor’s Center in Grant Grove Village and enjoyed the exhibits and a movie detailing the history of the parks – very interesting. The rangers were very helpful in letting us know which roads were open or closed and helped us plan our day.

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The park is at a high elevation (up to 14,000 ft) and on this particular day in April we experienced rain, sleet, and heavy fog – all in a matter of hours. Then lo and behold, the afternoon turned out to be sunny and clear. Luckily for us, the weather was a deterrent for crowds and we got to visit Grant Grove pretty much by ourselves. Grant Grove is only a mile from the visitors center and proved to be one of my favorite excursions. It consisted of a half-mile walking trail through the forest that loops to the German Grant Tree (third largest in the world and a “young” 1,650-years-old). The paved trail was easy to walk and we passed by fallen trees, crossed over streams, and wandered through giant sequoia groves.  The forest here was breathtakingly beautiful and on this particular day, the towering trees seemed ethereal and unworldly. There was no wind, no sound, sparse light, and a mystical fog all around. I loved it!

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Many of the higher altitude roads in Kings Canyon were closed to vehicles this time of year so we drove to a lower elevation and visited beautiful Hume Lake (a park ranger’s suggestion). The sun was shining, the water was glistening, and the temperature was perfect for exploring the area around the lake. We ended our afternoon after a relaxing stop here and headed for Yosemite National Park – our third and final stop!

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There is not anywhere else in the United States where national parks are located so close together as these three here in California. We spent a full twenty-four hours in each Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park before heading on to spend three days in Yosemite. I highly suggest trying the Majestic Mountain Loop whether it be for three days, a week, or maybe more.

I hope you enjoy your trip as much as we did!

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Mission San Jose’

San Antonio, TX

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I had a lovely girl’s trip recently to San Antonio and one of our highlights was visiting a couple of the old Spanish missions along the Mission Trail. I am quite the art history buff and had always wanted to see a couple of the missions besides The Alamo, which I always enjoy visiting. 

The Mission San Jose’ y San Miguel de Aguayo (proper name) is known as the “Queen of the Missions.” It was built in 1720, just two years after The Alamo was founded and only five miles downriver. Upon completion, it had the reputation of being the most beautiful church along the entire frontier of New Spain. It is the largest colonial mission still standing today.

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The five remaining missions are located near the San Antonio River and not far from downtown San Antonio. There is actually an official Mission Trail where one can walk, bike, or drive to each of the missions or just choose to visit a couple – which is what we did on this day. Mission San Jose’ was quite easy to find and parking was plentiful. We actually approached from the rear wall which gave us very impressive views of a garden, statues, the church, dome and bell tower.

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The church itself is quite stunning. It was constructed out of locally quarried Texas limestone by Spanish and Native American craftsmen. The flying buttresses, carvings, statues, bell towers, an ornate rose window, and quatrefoil patterns are very indicative of the European influence. The building surfaces are now worn and weathered but at one time were covered with brightly painted stucco. I imagine that 300 years ago the church facade was quite a sight to see with vivid blues, golds, and reds painted in large geometric patterns. I am certain the locals and natives had never seen anything quite like it!

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After walking around the outside of this main building, we passed through the large decorative doors into the sanctuary of the church. It was simple, ornate, and quite beautiful (regular services are still held here). We walked the expansive grounds of the mission and explored the walled fortification that provided workshops, storage spaces, a granary, visitor lodging, and homes for the priests and Native Americans. There were also wells and stone ovens scattered throughout the property that gave me a hint of what life was really like inside these walls in the 1700s.

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After exploring the property, we headed to the Visitor Center (located outside the walls) and enjoyed the displays and artifacts. We also watched a 23 minute film in the park theater that told the history of this mission, the land, and the people. It was most interesting and I highly suggest taking the time to learn more about Mission San Jose’ to fully appreciate its history and purpose. I now understand more about the pageantry, art, food, celebrations, and architecture of San Antonio after seeing how the blending of Spanish and Indian cultures began here and created the “Tejano” culture that we know today.

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Mission San Jose’ is an expansive, well-maintained property that includes the historic mission and grounds, a book store, a visitor’s center, free parking, and restrooms. It is well worth a visit when in the San Antonio area. Very interesting!

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The five San Antonio Missions are actually part of the National Park Service and are also  UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  These missions represent the largest concentration of Spanish colonial missions in North America.  U.S. Park Rangers offer guided tours at Mission San Jose’  (check times at the visitor center).

Poston Gardens

Waxahachie, TX

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I may never have the opportunity to travel to Holland in my lifetime to see tulips, but I have made it to a couple of tulip farms in Texas. That may be as close as I ever get! Does that count?

Last year my husband and trekked a hour north of Dallas to Texas Tulips in Pilot Point, Texas. This year, we drove an hour south of Dallas to quaint Waxahachie, Texas to check out the new Poston Gardens. 

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We visited  Poston Gardens this past weekend and were some of the first visitors on a beautiful Sunday morning. Parking was on-site and the entrance fee was $10 per person. Tulip stems run $3.00 each and you may keep both the tulip and bulb. The staff was most helpful and very friendly. We soon had a plan and a large plastic basket and were off on our way to pick tulips. 

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Several staff members drive carts throughout the fields and we quickly hitched a ride to the bottom (and largest) field that is home to over 400,000 tulips. The colors were a sensory overload! After picking and exploring here, we worked our way back up to three other fields on foot. Walking is easy, all the paths are well-marked. Rows of tulips are spaced far enough apart to make it all very easy.

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The flowers are breathtakingly beautiful! Candy colors, neon colors, soft pastels, pale whites – you name it – they are in full bloom!! There were 26 types of tulips planted this year and I loved and wanted them all. We managed to come home with 40 fresh stems (quite a few bulbs) and currently have two gorgeous tulip bouquets brightening up our home. A staff member gave us info on how to preserve our tulip bulbs so that we can plant them ourselves this winter. Hopefully we will be growing a few beautiful tulips in our yard next Spring! Fingers crossed.

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These tulip fields in Waxahachie are very new. Poston Gardens just opened on March 15th of this year. The owner, John Poston, has planted 40 acres of this 60 acre farm with over 1 million tulips. Mr. Poston decided to use his farm land to grow and sell tulips to help support Daymark Living (a facility located next door to Poston Gardens). Daymark is a resort-style community that teaches people with intellectual and developmental delays to live more independently. Poston’s 23-year-old son was born with Down syndrome and once he turned 18, there weren’t a lot of options for him to live a normal, independent life. Frustrated, Poston planned and built Daymark to help his son and others like him gain valuable life skills.  For every tulip sold, a portion of the profits goes directly to Daymark and its mission. Some of the Daymark residents even work in the gardens.

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The four large tulip fields are spread throughout the gently rolling farmland with some beautiful views. There are tents at a couple of locations where staffers will count, wrap, and prepare your tulips for the trip home. There are also restrooms, food trucks, and picnic tables located on the property. You can spend as little or as much time here as you choose. 

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If you are interested in tulip picking this year, GO SOON!  Poston Gardens will only be open for a few more weeks or as long as the tulips remain (usually through April). It was a fun experience for us both and makes us feel even better knowing that we contributed to a good cause.

Enjoy!

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(Suggestions: 1. Take a trowel if you want to extract the bulbs with the blooms.  2. Take a large container of cool water to place tulips in for the ride home  3. Wear gardening gloves to keep hands and nails clean!)  

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Mi Tierra

San Antonio, TX

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Mi Tierra’s is not your average Tex Mex restaurant. 

Walking into Mi Tierra’s is a sensory overload. The smells of the fresh-cooked Tex Mex dishes, baked goods, coffees, and tortillas waft through the air. The atmosphere is loud and energetic. Regardless of the hour, there always seems to be lines of people standing inside and outside waiting for tables. Laughter fills the air. You are surrounded by lights, flowers, seasonal decorations, pinatas, photos, murals, tinsel, flags, etc. as a variety of colors explode on every wall, counter, table and ceiling. Dozens of brightly dressed servers hustle around with food-laden trays. Mi Tierra’s is a party waiting to happen. It is not just a breakfast, lunch or dinner place. It is a true dining experience.

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The official name of this restaurant is Mi Tierra Cafe y Panaderia. This San Antiono landmark began in 1941 as a three-table restaurant to feed the local farmers and workers who arrived at the San Antonio Mercado in the early morning hours before their work shifts. Seventy-eight years later, Mi Tierra’s is a world-famous landmark known for their authentic Tex Mex fare, margaritas, desserts, and mariachis. The cafe and bakery now seats over 500 patrons and is open 24/7. 

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Every opportunity I have to visit San Antonio, I will try to enjoy at least one meal at Mi Tierra’s, visit the bakery for take-out items, and shop at the Market Square. I dined here three decades ago with my husband, as a young married couple. We dined here with our kids as toddlers, adolescents, and then as teenagers.  We took relatives from North Carolina here to introduce them to Tex Mex. They loved the mariachis! I recently ate lunch here with good friends while enjoying a girls’ weekend of shopping in the area. Throughout the years, every visit has been memorable and we have enjoyed each and every meal. This past week, we spotted Elvis (complete with jet black hair, sunglasses, and a glittery cape) enjoying a bowl of tortilla soup for lunch.  You just never know who – or what – you may see.

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I readily admit that my favorite part of Mi Tierra’s (besides the festive year-round decorations) is the bakery or panaderia. The pastries, sweet rolls, pralines, empanadas, candied fruits, cookies, etc. are the reason the line for the bakery is always out the door. Patrons may also purchase tamales, tortillas, and a variety of salsas here as well. The pecan pralines, pumpkin empanadas, fig empanadas and the beautifully-colored Mexican conchas are the things my dreams are made of! Flaky crusts, sweet fillings, crunchy nuts, and pastel-colored sugar toppings – what is there NOT to like?

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If you find yourself in South Texas within driving distance of San Antonio and have a hankering for Tex Mex, I urge you to give Mi Tierra’s a try.  And let me know if, or when, you plan to head that way in the near future. I may want you to pick me up a little something from the bakery! 

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Gordon Ramsay Burger

Las Vegas, NV

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When mentioning to an acquaintance about an upcoming trip to Las Vegas, she stated that she and her husband were going the same weekend that I was. She said, “the minute we land, my husband has to go get his Ramsay burger.” I had no idea what she was talking about.

I do now!

Gordon Ramsay Burger is located in the Planet Hollywood Resort Casino and next to the Miracle Mile Mall. It is pretty easy to spot by the 30-foot wall of fire display and by the line of people usually standing and waiting to get in.

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The stylish, open-concept restaurant is pretty impressive with bright colored walls, televisions, comfy seating, and an energetic atmosphere. The walls are covered with large pics of the one and only, Chef Gordon Ramsay. This restaurant is most well-known for its menu of high-end burgers, hot dogs, fancy drinks, gourmet desserts and shakes. My group decided to check it out the afternoon we arrived and managed to beat the regular dinner crowd (which is usually a 2 to 3 hour wait). We checked in with the hostess at 5:00 p.m. and only had a thirty minute wait. We were given a pager and explored some nearby Miracle Mile shops to kill the time. No biggie.

After waiting only twenty minutes, we were seated by one of the friendly hostesses. The menu had so much to choose from and we were all quite hungry. Decisions, decisions. We began with Cheddar Ale Soup, Beer Battered Onion Rings, Truffle Parmesan Fries, and Burnt Ends Poutine for all to share and “taste test.”

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Where to begin? The soup was served with crispy parma ham, pretzel croutons and fresh chives and was very tasty. The onion rings were sprinkled with parmigiano-reggiano and were served with chipotle ketchup and cheddar ranch dip. Yum! The hand-cut truffle fries were crispy and delicious and were served in a little British flag cone. The poutine was awesome! This popular Canadian dish consisted of a platter of fries topped with tender burnt ends (brisket), black pepper gravy, cheddar cheese curds, and pickled onions. I was in hog heaven!

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Soon we were moving on to our main course and trying hard to pace ourselves. Members of my group ordered the Ultimate Cheeseburger, the Blue Cheeseburger, the Ale Dawg, and the Lobster & Shrimp Burger. What a feast it was! All the burgers are prime cuts of meat, cooked over open flames, and served on delicious house-made buns. The Ultimate Cheeseburger had a slice of aged provolone, sweet dubliner cheese, and soft boursin cheese. It was rich, gooey, and delicious. The Blue Cheeseburger had crumbled blue cheese, manchego cheese, figgy jam, arugula, cider vinegar and mayo. This was easily my favorite burger. The figgy jam had such a delightful taste in combination with the other ingredients – what an inventive pairing.

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The Ale Dawg was fantastic and was HUGE! It came with a bacon-wrapped NYC Sabrett weiner (twice as long as the bun), cheddar ale sauce, caramelized onions, fresno chiles, and was topped with cheddar dusted potato crisps. Best. Hotdog. Ever.  

The Lobster & Shrimp Burger consisted of a thick patty made from pan-seared lobster and rock shrimp and was topped with pickled veggies, an herb aioli, and fresh lettuce. Delish!

 

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Gordon Ramsay Burger is also well-known for their special shakes and desserts- but this group was way too full to try anything else. We were all stuffed to the gills but very satisfied! We actually ate here one last time before heading to the airport to fly back home. We enjoyed our second meal here as much as the first one days before.

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If you are planning a trip to Las Vegas in the future, I highly recommend dining at this little gourmet “burger joint.”  Ramsay seems to have found a way to elevate traditional burgers by mixing regular ingredients with new fusions and coming up with some pretty spectacular combos. The prices are reasonable, portions are large, dishes are unique, and the food is great. Chef Ramsay cooks a  #@%&*! great burger in my opinion. Loved it!!

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BNP Paribas Open

Indian Wells, CA

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BNP Paribas Living Wall

I am a huge tennis fan, a Roger Federer groupie to be more exact. One of my all-time favorite vacations has been to Indian Wells, California to watch the BNP Paribas Open each March. I have had the opportunity to attend this professional tennis tournament several times and would go again tomorrow if given the chance!

What makes this tennis tournament so special? How long do you have?

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Roger Federer – greatest of all time

The location is spectacular! Indian Wells is located in Southern California in the gorgeous Coachella Valley. You can fly into Palm Springs or Orange County and easily drive to beautiful Indian Wells. This is the perfect setting for tennis in early spring and includes snowcapped mountains, blue skies, palm trees, citrus trees, colorful bogainvilleas, and dessert breezes.

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on the grounds at the Renaissance

The hotels and resorts located around the Indian Wells Tennis Garden are all top-notch. We have had the opportunity to stay at the Renaissance and the La Quinta resorts and both were enjoyable in their own way. The Renaissance is a favorite of the tennis pros and coaches and you get to “rub elbows” with some of the world’s top players on a daily basis. A beautiful pool, fantastic breakfast buffet, firepits, ping pong tables, and great restaurants make this a great choice. The elegant La Quinta is more spread out and provides you with a private “casita” and beautiful desert-landscaped grounds. Each set of 8 casitas surrounds their own private pool. There are several restaurants, bars, and grills on the property as well as nightly music in the common area. The spa and tennis center are both very upscale and everything here is near perfection.

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fire pit at the Renaissance 

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view from our room at the Renaissance

Transportation to and from the tennis matches is a breeze. This tournament has been going on since 2000 and travel options around the event are well-orchestrated. The local resorts offer bus service every 20-30 minutes. When staying at the Renaissance, we walked right out of the hotel lobby and caught a bus that dropped us at the gate. We purchased a parking pass when staying at the La Quinta and drove our own rental car and parked in VIP parking each day. We pulled into the designated lot and our car was valet parked for us – very nice! We left the grounds one day just to go have lunch in the town of La Quinta and enjoyed the freedom that a car provided us.

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behind our casita at La Quinta 

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La Quinta Tennis Center

 

The Indian Wells Tennis Garden is one of the best on tour. The 29 courts, the 16,000 seat main stadium, the grounds, the shops and restaurants, and the activities make this my “hands-down favorite” tennis venue. Try out tennis racquets, watch some pros warm up on the practice courts, buy some new tennis clothes, get some great vendor “freebies,”  take photos in a special photo booth, register to win prizes, or sip champagne under the palm trees. When you tire from all those activities, pull up a chair and watch matches on the big outdoor screen or grab a bite to eat from one of the various eateries and sit at a picnic table and enjoy people-watching. You may also see James Blake signing autographs, the Bryan brothers on stage with their band, Rod Laver walking around, or Chrissie Evert having a question-and-answer session with the crowd.  The grounds are alive and happening!

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night tennis

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maybe I can hit the ball with this!

 

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practice courts

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Chris Evert

Now for the best part – the tennis! I have had the opportunity to see my favorite players play (and win!) only a short distance from me.  Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovich, and Juan Martin Del Potro, etc. all speak about how much they enjoy this tournament every year and it is easy to see why. The stadiums give you the feeling of being “up close and personal” with the top players in the world. After having attended Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, I can honestly say this is by far my favorite tennis venue.

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Roger Federer

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Juan Martin Del Potro

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enjoying a match

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Rafa Nadal

 

There are also many interesting and fun things to see and to do while in the Indian Wells and Palm Springs area, so be certain to add a few days to the beginning or end of your tennis time here. Check out all the little restaurants and shops in Old Town La Quinta. Ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway for great views of the Coachella Valley. Explore Joshua Tree National Park for great hiking and rockclimbing opportunities. Drive into downtown Palm Springs for a great meal, a museum visit, and see the Walk of Stars. Drive a few miles to The Cafe at Shields Date Garden for a great meal on the patio, see the “date sex” movie, and have a delicious date shake. Take a day and drive over the mountains to Temecula and enjoy exploring and winetasting at some of the finest Southern California wineries.  Take a guided jeep or ATV tour and visit a desert oasis. Many possibilities await you!

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enjoying chardonnay in Temecula

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bacon-wrapped stuffed dates at Shields Date Garden 

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view of Palm Springs from the San Jacinto Mountains

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cozying up to Sonny Bono in downtown Palm Springs

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the Palm Springs Aerial Tram

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a joshua treet in Joshua Tree National Park

For all of you tennis fans, I hope that you get the opportunity to visit Indian Wells for the BNP Paribas Open at least once. We have had four great experiences and loved each and every visit (we book through Steve Furgal’s Tennis Tours and let them handle the hotels, additional days, and tennis tickets).

If you are interested and or would like more information, I will be glad to give you my two cent’s worth.

Go Roger!!

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sunset at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden

Lip Smacking Food Tours

Las Vegas

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I recently celebrated a milestone birthday in Vegas with friends and family and scheduled a food adventure with Lip Smacking Food Tours. What a great way to “spice up” the usual Vegas trip! We scheduled the three-hour afternoon food tour, considered this our late lunch, and had plenty of time left for a night on the town and a late dinner. It worked out perfectly.

I have not been to Vegas in almost fifteen years and had no idea how much the restaurant business had grown. There are now over 350 restaurants on The Strip and every celebrity chef has their own place. There seems to be an absence of the old 99 cent steak buffets that were so popular in years past. Those are now replaced by high-end, fine dining establishments in every hotel and casino. Times they are a changin’…..for the better, in my opinion.

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After researching “things to do” in Vegas before our trip, I came across the highly rated food tours. The Lip Smacking Food Tours seemed to be the  perfect way to visit four high-end restaurants and taste a sampling of some very raved about dishes. What was not to like? You visit four amazing restaurants to sample their food and drink their craft cocktails (optional). It is advertised to be an easy walk between all the stops. The guide will fill you in on local art, Las Vegas history, and give you inside information that only the locals know. Sounds good – I signed us up!

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We met at The Focus, a beautiful water wall at the Aria Hotel. There were seven of us and seven others who joined the group. Whitney was our awesome (and gorgeous!) tour guide. She was extremely knowledgeable about the food scene and about Vegas in general.  The tour was relaxed (but not too slow) and very informative (without being boring ). Whitney kept us moving but never hurried.  In addition to the food sampling, we got a cultural/art tour and an overall V.I.P. Vegas experience. There were also a couple of completely unexpected surprises along the way. The tour was way more fun (and way more food) than just going to dinner somewhere.

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After a brief introduction to the tour guidelines, our first stop was Javier’s, a high-end Mexican restaurant well-known for premium tequilas and beautiful art work. We were seated in a gorgeous, private dining room ($3500 per night rental) at a beautifully decorated table. We sampled a variety of tasty salsas and chips, enchiladas (crab and organic chicken), traditional rice and beans, and a pineapple margarita (yum!). Delicioso!

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Our second stop was Estiatorio Milos, a Greek and Mediterranean seafood restaurant. We were seated at round tables with great views and displays of fresh vegetables and seafood were all around us. Food here was served family style. We feasted on baked bread with Greek olive oil and sprigs of fresh oregano. The Greek Salad (with delicious feta cheese), grilled octopus, and the Milos Special (fried zucchini tower with tzatziki and cheese) was delicious and most enjoyable. Every item was fresh and tasty. Loved it all.

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Our third stop was Momofuku, a new Asian/Korean restaurant. We began with Spicy Cucumbers and toasted cashews. Our second course was Pork Buns which were large bao buns stuffed with thick slices of pork belly.  The last course was a fantastic Chickpea Ramen. The roasted chickpeas, scallions, miso and bok choy created a great mix of flavors and it was most enjoyable. We sat by a large, graffiti-style wall mural that was really cool. This stop was a feast for eyes and bellies!

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At this point in the tour, we were pretty full….but we were on to our final stop. Our last restaurant was Cucina by Wolfgang Puck. What a way to end a food tour! This is the celebrity’s chef’s latest rustic Italian restaurant. We had desserts here and what a treat it was. The Salted Caramel Budino was creamy and delicious. The Tiramisu was perfection. The Vanilla Zeppole (think donut hole) with raspberry sauce was sweet and tart, all at the same time. The Cremoso sponge cake and mousse was my favorite. Delizioso! Since it was my birthday, I got a specially decorated plate and a birthday serenade by an Italian singer. It was a perfect ending to a most perfect day.

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At each restaurant, the staff was welcoming, prompt, and professional. We were seated at the best tables in the place. Printed menus were provided at each stop detailing the food and beverages. We were served in a quick and timely manner and any additional drink order was easily handled. The entire tour was top notch and quickly became one of the favorite things about our Vegas trip. We had been entertained, educated, and fed the best of the best. The complete experience, from beginning to end, was perfectly executed and my group thoroughly enjoyed it. Lip Smacking Food Tours did it up right!

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If you are planning a trip to Las Vegas in the near future and are a self-proclaimed “foodie,”  I highly suggest trying out Lip Smacking Food Tours. I will leave you with a few simple words of advice: go hungry, wear comfy shoes, pace yourself, and wear stretchy pants.

Bon appetit!

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Mille Lire

Dallas, Texas

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I love having friends who are foodies! They are a wealth of information regarding new restaurants, new food trends, and the latest recipes. One of my best “foodie friends” just happened to turn me on to Mille Lire.

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Mille Lire is a great little Italian restaurant located in the Dallas Arts District near Cedar Springs, in the Centrum Building. From the second I walked in, I liked it. I was impressed with the chic, modern decor and the “homey” feel. The tables were beautifully set. Interesting art work was located throughout the dining rooms. A high glass ceiling, colorful floor tiles, big windows, and beautiful lighting fixtures created a warm, welcoming atmosphere. So far, so good!

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The hostess was welcoming and my husband and I were promptly seated at our table in the middle of the restaurant. Our server made us feel welcome and delivered the right amount of attentiveness throughout our meal. The cocktail and wine lists were impressive and the menu selections were very appealing. Now it was time to make some tough decisions!

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I opted for a glass of Amore Prosecco and it was cool and crisp – just the way I like it. My husband ordered the Italiano Mule and it was awesome! Limoncello was the secret ingredient that gave the mule its special  “oomph!” Delicioso on both counts.

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We chose the Roasted Cauliflower and the Roasted Beet Salad for our antipasti. The cauliflower florets were drizzled with Thai chili cream sauce and the flavor was amazing. The roasted beets were cut into bite-size squares and were served with goat cheese, toasted pistachios and orange slices. The textures, flavors, and plating of both of these appetizers was spot-on. Our server also brought over a complimentary bread basket, creamy butter, and dipping oil that was a nice addition to our other dishes.

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For our entrees, we decided to try a couple of the housemade pasta dishes. We opted for the Fettuccine Carbonara and the Pappardelle al Ragu. The fettuccine dish was served al dente with pecorino cheese, pancetta, a poached egg, and topped with crispy Brussels sprouts. This dish was rich, creamy, and delicious and made for some great leftovers. The pappardelle was also al dente and was served with a bold sauce of dry-aged beef bolognese, tomatoes, and fresh grated parmesan. This was authentic Italian cooking at its best – simple and flavorful.

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Dessert might have been my favorite part of the meal…no surprise there! My husband and I shared a piece of Ricotta & Amaretto Cheesecake topped with wild cherries. At this point, I really, really wished I had not agreed to share. I would have licked the saucer clean if it would not have embarrassed my husband! The slice of cheesecake was creamy and smooth with the perfect amount of sweetness versus tartness. More, please!

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At one point during our dinner, I saw the chef come out from the open kitchen and talk to a few patrons. Giuliana Matarese is the owner and executive chef of Mille Lire. He was born and raised in Napoli and has over 20 years experience at top-notch restaurants, including in NYC. This new restaurant of his just received the 2018 Open Table Diner’s Choice Award, so they must be doing something right! Mille Lire is not open just for dinner hours. They also offer “Pranzo Veloce”  (quick lunch) specials Tuesday thru Friday and a Prosecco Brunch with a Live DJ on Sundays.

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My husband and I really enjoyed our visit and I would love to return soon to try their Sunday brunch and Prosecco Bar. I hope you will check them out the next time you are in the mood for some authentic Italian fare. Buon appetito!

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Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary

Cochrane, Alberta

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My husband and I are dog-lovers and I actually worked for veterinarians for many years, so canines are near and dear to our hearts. When vacationing in Canada a couple of months ago, we both were excited to visit Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary. 

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Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary (a non-profit) is an impressive organization that has put a lot of time, dedication, and thought into their facility and cause. As wolf hybrids became more popular in their area, this group identified the need for a knowledgeable and experienced rescue organization. They opened the doors in 2011 as one of the largest sanctuaries in Canada and the only one to balance education with adoption opportunities. Today, their main purpose is to educate the public on wolfdogs and to raise awareness regarding wolf conservation – all while providing some of these regal creatures a great home.

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The sanctuary sits on 160 acres of beautiful, tree-covered acreage with large, natural areas for the wolfdogs to live and run. Each enclosure is one to two acres with diverse vegetation to provide a happy, healthy, and stress-free environment.  When we visited in August there were 23 permanent wolfdog residents, 10 ambassadors, and a few adoption possibilities.

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As we explored the facility, we noticed small signs throughout the sanctuary enclosures that listed interesting wolf facts. Other signs identified their permanent wolfdogs with photos, names and information regarding that particular individual. The entire place was immaculate and paths were well-maintained. We enjoyed being on our own, taking our time, and wandering throughout the facility on the designated paths. I particularly enjoyed photographing these animals in their natural habitat.

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We paid for one of the sanctuary’s introductory tours and were escorted around by a volunteer who did a great job explaining all about the organization and their purpose. She gave us great information about the actual wolfdogs including their diet, history, care, training, appearance, etc. We did not get to physically touch any of the wolfdogs but did get to see them up close and personal with just a regular-height wire fence between us. We were told that all wolves and their hybrids have black-rimmed, amber eyes and their ears are full of thick hair. Their feet are extremely large for their bodies and toes are webbed. Bodies are thin and lithe with long legs. Tails are fluffy and never wag – they are usually held straight out or down. Coats are rough and thick. Blood tests can be done to determine how “low or high” each one’s “wolf ” content is but much can be determined by physical appearance and personality. We certainly learned a lot! 

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We were also told many other fascinating facts about these magnificent creatures and how difficult it is to own one. They are not “wild” enough to live as wolves and full-blooded wolves will not accept them into their packs. They are not “dog” enough to make great pets due to their wolf-like traits. They are master diggers and climbers and cannot be kept as backyard pets. They crave freedom and independence. They need excessive exercise and stimulation or they become very destructive. They are very possessive and territorial. They are naturally timid and shy. They have a high-prey drive. They have no desire to “please” or mind an owner. They do not want to be left alone for long periods of time. They will not learn tricks or commands.  At this point, our headstrong yorkie was starting to look good and a lot less challenging! We were quickly convinced that it takes a very special person to adopt these wolfdogs – what a challenge! 

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Why is there such a need for place like Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary? People want to breed dogs with wolves and think it will be “cool” or make one appear “tough” to have a wolf-hybrid. Hybrid puppies are sold for thousands of dollars to uninformed owners who have no idea what they are getting into. Little do these new owners know what the future problems and issues will be – many that I just listed. Most of these wolfdogs end up in shelters where they are euthanized.  Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary saves many of these wolfdogs from euthanasia. They also rehabilitate some, adopt others (most with lower wolf content),  and continue to educate the public on the plight of these hybrids.

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This facility believes in the ethical and humane treatment of all animals, so it was no surprise that there is also a barnyard filled with other rescued animals. We enjoyed visiting with geese, roosters, chickens, a coydog (coyote/dog mix), a donkey and numerous goats (who have their own Instagram account – #goatsofyamnuska) that have all been rescued and now happily live on the property. The goats were a hoot!

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The people working here all seemed very passionate about these animals and it showed.  Their dedication to these creatures was blatantly obvious. It was a most impressive place and the private tour ended up being one of our favorite parts of this Canadian vacation. We loved it – and learned a lot in the process.

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If you are the least bit interested in dogs and/or wolves, Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary is well worth the drive from Calgary or Lake Louise to experience this one-of-a-kind rescue center. It was a great, albeit unusual, experience and one that I will never forget!

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Icefields Parkway

Alberta, Canada

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My husband and I had the opportunity to travel to Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada this past August and we set aside one full day to drive the Icefields Parkway. What a experience it turned out to be!

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The Icefields Parkway (Hwy 93) runs from Lake Louise in Banff National Park to Jasper in Jasper National Park. This 144-mile scenic drive is rated the “Top Drive in the World” by Conde’ Nast Traveller and it didn’t take us long into the drive to see why. The double-lane highway winds along the Continental Divide through soaring mountain peaks, turquoise lakes, sweeping valleys, ancient glaciers, cascading waterfalls, dramatic rock spires and thick pine forests. We looked forward to a fresh new wonder around every corner. There were  plenty of scenic stops, picnic spots, hiking trails and clean portable toilets along the entire route.  

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We filled up our gas tank in Lake Louise (there is only one service station along the route) and began our journey. Our first stop along the way was the Crowfoot Glacier. We took advantage of the many places where we could pull off the highway to take spectacular photos or find a trailhead to hike. We took our time driving and made many “must-see” stops along the way – with Crowfoot Glacier being our first.

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Just up the highway was Bow Lake, a beautiful mountain lake with turquoise water, framed by dark green evergreens on shore. Next up was Peyto Lake, the perfect Canadian Rockies photo op. We parked here and took an easy 15-minute stroll along a paved trail to the overlook. This viewpoint was the highest elevation on the Icefields Parkway and gave us spectacular views of the glacial valley and gorgeous lake below. It was breathtaking!

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The halfway point between Banff and Jasper was the Saskatchewan Crossing. Not only were the river views here very scenic (including bighorn sheep!), this was the only stop for lunch, gasoline, and cell coverage. There were a couple of small restaurants, restrooms, and a small general store as well. We filled the rental car up, grabbed a quick soup & sandwich lunch, and hit the road again. 

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One of my favorite stops was the Columbia Icefield – the largest glacial icefield south of the Arctic Circle. This whole area made me feel like I was in another world, on another planet. The landscape resembles the moon – or what I picture the moon surface to be. We hiked the area and climbed up on rocky mounds for stunning views of the glittering glaciers all around us. It was a 360-degree view of ancient glaciers, ragged mountain peaks, and rivers of silty, glacier water run-off. There is a huge Glacier Discover Centre here where tourists can actually board an Ice Explorer bus that takes you up on the Athabasca Glacier and lets you walk on the thick ice. We chose to bypass the crowds and the long lines and explore on our own. It was an experience that I will never forget. 

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We were lucky that there were so many other sights and experiences from that day that we will never forget. We stopped and enjoyed the beauty and serenity of Herbert Lake. We admired the scenic views from Big Hill & Big Bend. We hiked up to the loud and powerful Sunwapta Falls.  How could anyone with a sense of adventure not enjoy exploring a place with landmarks named Mosquito Creek, Tangle Falls, Weeping Wall, Mushroom Peak and Goats & Glaciers? What a great day!

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I can easily see why National Geographic referred to this route as “the most beautiful journey on the planet.” It was the most beautiful drive I have ever experienced and every few miles offered a change of scenery. Words really can’t describe it and photos really don’t do it justice. I am just so thankful that David and I had to chance to experience driving the Icefields Parkway once in our lifetime. I hope you get the opportunity as well. 

Safe travels!

I hope you enjoyed this blog! Feel free to leave comments. If you would like to read my future dining and travel blogs, please subscribe. Thanks!

Lake Agnes Teahouse

Alberta, Canada

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Let me start by saying I am not a very athletic person. I am not competitive and never have been. I am an out-of-shape, almost sixty-year-old female with an artificial knee. Keep that in mind as I share this story that happened last month when my husband and I visited Canada and we will call it “Susan vs the Mountain.”

We stayed in a lovely little hotel in Lake Louise and decided for our first full day in Canada to hike up to the Lake Agnes Teahouse that was located on one of the mountains behind the Fairmont Chateau. This is a very popular hiking trail and we were told to arrive early due to limited parking. So at 7:45 a.m. – carrying our backpacks, water supply, and bear spray – we pulled into the parking lot and headed towards the trail head beside the shore of beautiful Lake Louise.

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Our research told us that this is a half-day hike (1-2 hours one way) with a total distance of  7 km (4.5 miles). Our elevation gain would be 1300 feet (which soon seemed like 1300 miles!) and we would end up at 7005 feet. The trail began along the wooded lake shore and soon started leading upwards. When I say “leading upwards”…..I mean leading UPWARDS  (body bent in half, head forward, toes digging in) upwards. The trail zigzagged back and forth through the trees at a pretty steady incline. The trail was well-maintained, though we had to be mindful of loose rocks, gravel, and tree roots. Immediately the altitude became an enemy. Every few yards I had to grab a tree or sit on a rock and wheeze a little to catch my breath. Whose idea was this?

During these multiple moments of trying to breathe, I would look up and be amazed at the gorgeous scenery around me. We were in dense evergreen forests with colorful wildflowers,  scrambling chipmunks, and silence…..except for my wheezing. When the trail would switch back in one direction, we had gorgeous views of the turquoise Lake Louise which was now below us as we rose higher on the mountain.

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About halfway up this trail with a racing heart rate, burning thighs, and parched throat – my attitude changed. I went from “oh, how lovely” to “who in their right mind would build a  @%$#&*!  teahouse on the side of a mountain?” I was sweating, my face was bright red, and a cup of hot tea was not what I wanted at this particular moment in time. Tequila? Maybe. Chamomile or Earl Grey? Nope.

Being the hard-headed ole broad that I am, I pushed on and finished the hike in a little under two hours. The trail had been long and difficult but I was determined not to give up – I had come too far to quit at this point. We soon heard voices through the trees and knew that we were close to the end of our hike. A beautiful waterfall appeared around the final bend and the views below us were amazing. We stopped and caught our breath only to discover that the only way up to the teahouse from this point was a wooden staircase with what seemed like a thousand steps. Really? We hadn’t suffered enough? Once again I thought – who in their right minds would do this?

 

After a little more (okay, a lot more) griping, pulling and pushing – we made it up to the Lake Agnes Teahouse.  I was not prepared for what awaited us. The scene was breathtaking! The teahouse is a very rustic, two-story log structure situated on a scenic mountain lake and is surrounded on three sides by snowy mountain peaks. There were dozens of people here ahead of us (these crazy people hiked up here too?) and everyone was chilling and enjoying the place. We found a table on the teahouse porch, dropped our backpacks, and ordered lunch.

The Lake Agnes Teahouse was originally built as a shelter for hikers and began serving tea in 1905.  There is no running water or electricity so the menu is quite simple. All supplies and foods are transported manually by workers, by horseback, or flown in by helicopter. Staff members bring supplies up and carry garbage back down. They offered loose leaf teas, hot chocolate, soups, scones, sandwiches, salads and chips – nothing fancy and cash only.  We sat outside with views of the Canadian Rockies and Lake Agnes and enjoyed a pot of tea, scones, and sandwiches and it was all delicious. This was another of my life’s “pinch me moments.” I have never felt such a sense of accomplishment and contentment as I did at that very moment.

After enjoying our refreshments, a brief rest period and the views here for an hour or so, we decided to head back down the trail. Getting up there was the hard part but was well worth it. Walking down was going to be a breeze. Right?

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The first part of going back down was very pleasant and the trail was so much easier. I was riding on an emotional high – I had completed the uphill hike and had my bragging rights for one of the most difficult things I had ever attempted. All was well until I took a step and my left hiking boot felt “odd” and heavy. Lo and behold, the front sole was detaching from my boot! I found the nearest boulder to plop down on to examine the damage while David searched our backpacks for a cord or something to tie my boot back together. He found his earbuds and did a quite nice job of wrapping them around my foot and held the boot sole on for the remainder of my hike. David’s Boy Scout training had paid off. All was well.

“All was well” until five minutes later when my other boot came apart. Yep! The thick rubber sole almost completely detached from the bottom of the right boot as well. It felt like I was walking downhill on a rocky trail in swim fins! We didn’t have any more earbuds or anything string-like. The best thing to do at this point was go ahead and pull this sole completely off and hobble on down the trail on the thin leather bottom. That is exactly what I did. It felt like I was walking down a steep mountain while wearing one cheap house slipper and one utility work boot, with one leg much shorter than the other.

This was one of those days that covered a full range of emotions. We laughed, I cried, we worried, and then we laughed some more. I may have even cursed a little. When all was said and done, this day will forever be etched in my brain as one of the most memorable days of my life. I was so proud of myself for not giving up and pushing myself to my physical limits. I was so proud of my husband who deserves a medal for his patience and kindness. I felt so privileged to be able to see “in person” the breathtaking sights we saw that day – scenes that cannot be replicated by videos or photos. After all was said and done…it was simply The Best.

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I hope you get the opportunity to visit Lake Louise and take this hike to the Lake Agnes Teahouse. Words cannot describe it and photos cannot come close to capturing the real-life experience. I do have a few words of advice for you though: travel with a great partner, take drinking water & bear spray, wear new hiking boots (with stitched – not glued – bottoms), be in decent physical shape, and ALWAYS take duct tape with you wherever you go!

One final chapter to our adventure – David left me at the trail head when we finally finished the hike and volunteered to go get our car. He did not wish for me to continue walking unevenly and risk another knee injury, which I very much appreciated. So I sat….for a long time. After walking back to find our car and trying to get back to me through heavy traffic, David made an illegal u-turn to shorten his driving time back to the start of the trail to pick me up. Unfortunately for him, he turned right in front of a Canadian policeman. A $155 traffic ticket became the “cherry on top” of this day.

I always did love a bad boy.

 

 

 

 

 

Lake Louise

Alberta, Canada

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Banff has always been on my radar. It was not until our dentist visited there and passed on her experiences that we decided to make this trip happen sooner, rather than later. Dr. Williamson, our long-time family dentist, painted a detailed picture in my mind of towering peaks, gorgeous mountain lakes, ancient glaciers, the perfect hotel, and delicious foods.  I was sold. Plans were made. Passports were dusted off. Bags were packed. Canada, here we come!

My husband and I flew into Calgary and rented a car to drive the two hours into Banff National Park. Needless to say, most of the drive was breathtakingly beautiful as we headed towards the heart of the Canadian Rockies on a warm August afternoon.

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on the Post Hotel grounds

Over one hundred years ago, Lake Louise (named after Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria)  was just a wild outpost at the end of the Canadian Pacific Railway. It was mainly a base for outdoor enthusiasts, thrill-seekers, and hunters.  Today Lake Louise is a luxury resort area that is famous for its gorgeous lakes, mountain tea houses, grizzly bears, and hiking trails.  This area attracts large crowds of tourists from all over the world in the summer season. I was not surprised to hear Spanish, Farsi, Norwegian, German, French, Japanese, and Chinese all spoken around me in the span of 15 minutes at the Fairmont Chateau. We had all come together in this place to share in one of the most unforgettable and spectacular sights in North America.

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Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise

In the early afternoon, we arrived in the town of Lake Louise and checked in to the Post Hotel. Once again, Dr. Williamson had given us excellent advice! This was a small, boutique hotel located steps away from The Village (main shopping center with small grocery store, deli, bakery, visitor’s center, grill, etc.).  The Post Hotel was situated along the shores of the Pipestone River in a beautiful area with wonderful views. It was luxurious, quaint, and had wonderful amenities – including afternoon tea and a five-star restaurant. We loved everything about it – even the bear spray you checked out each day from the front desk! 

Ours plans the first day were to drive to the “actual” Lake Louise and hike up to the Lake Agnes Teahouse. This is a popular hiking trail that begins on the edge of the lake near the iconic Fairmont Lake Louise Chateau. This mountainous trail leads 5+ miles (round trip) to a lovely little rustic tea house that was built in 1905 and sits on the shoreline of another idyllic alpine lake, Lake Agnes.  This hike ended up being newsworthy enough to get a blog all to itself!  More of this excursion to come at a later date………

We headed to Lake Louise very early this particular morning to procure parking as it fills up very quickly. We grabbed our hiking gear and walked a short distance from the parking area to the shoreline. We stepped out of the treeline onto the shore and I was speechless.

The views were surreal.

Lake Louise is simply a postcard that you step into.

 

Lake Louise is what makes Banff National Park such a popular destination. I find it impossible to describe without resorting to shameless cliches. The lake is most famous for its glacier-fed, mirror-like, turquoise water. It is surrounded on three sides by soaring snow-capped mountain peaks and a stately shoreline chateau (The Fairmont) on one end. When you stand next to this serene lake and gaze out onto Victoria Glacier, the glassy water, and the towering mountains – it is no wonder that this breathtakingly beautiful place is the most photographed sight in the Canadian Rockies. Unfortunately, photos really can’t do it justice. The 360-degree views seem unreal. Words are lost as your senses take over.

Our first full day in Lake Louise turned out to be amazing! Now we needed to plan the remainder of our stay. Luckily, the town of Lake Louise turned out to be the perfect base for our summer trip. What to do next? There was plenty of hiking, kayaking, cycling, and canoeing opportunities in the area. There were also more sights to see than we had days to see them! We had to prioritize and plan our agenda for the remainder of our stay.

We visited Lake Moraine, another spectacular mountain lake with stunning views and well worth a visit. We drove the Icefields Parkway. This is a beautiful drive from Lake Louise to Jasper that takes you by glorious lakes, waterfalls, mountain views, a glacier field, hiking trails, lookout points, etc. The scenery was amazing! 

One sunny afternoon was spent riding up one of ski slopes in the Lake Louise Gondola. This proved to be another fun activity and the views were great. Another day was spent in Yoho National Park hiking around Emerald Lake, seeing the Natural Bridge, and hiking up to Takakawa Falls. There was so much natural beauty surrounding us – too much to see and way too little time! At the end of each day, it was so nice to return to our quiet, little hotel. We enjoyed afternoon tea, wine on the lawn, and delicious four-course gourmet meals. I really did not want to leave at he end of our stay.

We thoroughly enjoyed our wonderful stay and visit to the village of Lake Louise. I will never forget the scenery and the experiences we had here. Great memories were made! Now we were off to the towns of Banff and Canmore and then on to Calgary for a few days. More stories to tell!

Stay tuned.

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Bow Summit and Peyto Lake

 

Seven Falls

Colorado Springs, CO

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Seven Falls is a towering waterfall located in Colorado Springs just a few miles from the Broadmoor Hotel. It is actually not “seven” falls as the name indicates – but one continuous waterfall that flows over seven granite plateaus. This beautiful waterfall is located at the end of a natural box canyon and is flanked by pink granite walls called the Pillars of Hercules that rise 1250 feet above you. The views here are quite impressive!

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The best way to get to Seven Falls is from the Broadmoor Hotel (due to parking and GPS issues that can be a nightmare). Admission tickets can be purchased inside the hotel for $14 and then you simply catch one of their private shuttles that drops you off right at the gate. The Broadmoor shuttles run every 10-15 minutes.

From the front entrance of Seven Falls, you may choose to ride a tram up to the falls or decide to walk the one-mile hike from the base – which is what we did. It was quite a scenic adventure! This journey up to the falls is named “the grandest mile of scenery” in all of Colorado. You walk along on a comfortable, paved trail with a slight incline that leads you through some breathtaking scenery.  You are surrounded on every side by high mountains, rocky cliffs,  rock formations, dense forests, colorful wildflowers, and the icy cold South Cheyenne Creek. The hike was peaceful, beautiful, not crowded, and most enjoyable.

 

Once you arrive at Seven Falls, there is an Eagle’s Nest platform for some great viewing opportunities a short distance from the actual falls. You can take the 180 steps up or ride the elevator to the overlook. The elevator passageway has several interesting photos, exhibits and artifacts regarding the history of the falls so I highly suggest at least popping in here for a few minutes, even if you do choose to take the steps up. Whichever route you take to the Eagle’s Nest, the views of Seven Falls are pretty awesome from this vantage point. #greatphotos!

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When you exit the Eagle’s Nest, venture on to the base of the falls and experience the power of this water up close and personal. It is loud and powerful! From this point, the “more adventurous” can hike the 224-step stairway that leads alongside the falls for a closer view of the water and take advantage of hiking trails at the top. There are two nature hike trailheads above the falls (a one-hour trail and a 1/2-hour trail) that offer different views of the falls, the canyon, and the stream that feeds the falls.

The less athletic people (me!) can find several small shops near the falls that are filled with souvenirs, snacks, apparel, jewelry and minerals for purchase to commemorate your visit here. When your sightseeing has concluded, kick back and enjoy a snack or meal at the scenic Restaurant 1858 on the property. This rustic-styled restaurant is run by The Broadmoor and offers a varied menu – everything from salads, burgers and nachos to wood-grilled steak and trout. We had a late lunch here and really enjoyed it.

As you exit Seven Falls and walk (or ride) back down towards the gate through the canyon, look up and see if you can spot any zip-line cables, rope bridges, zip-liners, or wooden platforms high on the mountain sides. The Broadmoor’s Soaring Adventures offers zip-line tours of this canyon and falls area. If you desire to balance on rope bridges, zip-line over canyons, or rappel down rock cliffs – this may be for you! My family did this course one morning during our stay in Colorado Springs and LOVED it!!

My family and I certainly enjoyed our visit to Seven Falls. The actual waterfall and this gorgeous canyon has attracted visitors for over 160 years (since 1880) and now I see why.  I hope you get a chance to visit and see it all firsthand! 

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Seven Falls is currently owned and operated by The Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs.

 

Boulevardier

Dallas, Texas

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I will readily admit that I am a big fan of Chef Nathan Tate’s restaurants. I enjoyed Ava, love Rapscallion, and had high hopes for Boulevardier. I was not disappointed!

Boulevardier is located a little off the beaten path in the Bishop Arts District in Dallas. It is a very stylish, but casual, upscale French bistro and bar. The restaurant has a cozy, exposed brick interior with a wrap-around bar in the front. There are wine racks lining the walls, modern artwork, gold-framed mirrors, sleek tables, colorful booths, and an outside dining area.

The dinner menu is varied with French-inspired dishes as well as more typical American foods. Choose from French bistro fare such as onion soup, steak frites, crawfish beignets, duck wings, and bouillabaisse. If those items don’t appeal to your taste buds – try the oysters, pork chops, burgers, or steaks selections. Bouldevardier seems to have something for everyone, including  a long list of classy craft cocktails and an extensive wine list. 

 

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My husband and I dined here for the first time last month and had an outstanding meal. We each ordered wines by the glass from their impressive wine list and enjoyed both of our choices. We choose the Cheese Board to share as our appetizer and it was outstanding. It contained four types of cheese, bread, crackers, nuts, fruit and honey. I don’t think I have met many cheese boards that I didn’t like but this one was exceptional! These selections rotate periodically at the chef’s choosing.

Next up were our entrees. My husband ordered the Wild Boar Ragout Pappardelle and it was delicious. Luckily he is a kind man and shares his food, so I graciously sampled a bite or two (or more!). This dish had house-made pasta, tender meat, local greens, parmesan cheese, and was topped with house-made ricotta. It was very tasty. I decided on the Crisp Chicken Paillard for my entree  and it was amazing as well. This dish consisted of a thin, breaded chicken breast cutlet topped with greens, haricot verts, heirloom tomatoes, olives, capers, cucumber slices, parmesan, and a peppadew vinaigrette. The chicken was tender, cooked perfectly, and the overall combination of flavors was spot on. I enjoyed every bite! We has also ordered a side of Mac & Cheese (our waiter’s suggestion) and it was also amazing. This was a large portion of  pasta, creamy mornay, gruyere, parmesan, garlic and fresh thyme sprinkles – think comfort food 2.0.  This made great leftovers the following day!

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Never ones to refuse desserts (even when full and satisfied), we decided to order and split Nancy’s Bread Pudding (one of my favorite desserts). It came beautifully plated with a large portion of sweet bread pudding, huckleberry jam, bourbon butter sauce, and was topped with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. It was a perfect end to a perfect meal. 

 

We really had a most enjoyable meal this particular evening. From the convenient valet parking – to the lively ambiance – to the service and food, it was a dining experience we look forward to repeating very soon.  I would love to try their brunch next – the menu looks quite appetizing.

I hope you will be inspired to dine at Boulevardier in the near future for brunch or dinner. We may see you there. Cheers!

 

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Colorado Springs, CO

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My family and I just returned from a trip to Colorado and a visit to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. The zoo was absolutely spectacular!

This zoo is located 6,800 ft. above sea level and is built on the side of a forested mountain with breathtaking views. It was founded in 1926 and is the highest zoo in the nation. It has recently been voted the 4th best zoo in the United States.  There are 15 main exhibits that cover over 140 acres and house over 170 different species of animals.  Each exhibit “mirrors” natural habitats in the wild and makes you feel like you are transported around the globe. 

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One of the first areas after you enter the gates will be Encounter Africa. This award-winning exhibit puts you face-to-face with a dozen or so reticulated giraffes. These gentle, long-necked animals are eye-level and you can hand-feed them zoo-provided lettuce ($2-$5 purchase). Beware the long, slimy tongues but try to enjoy all the surprised looks when lettuce-feeders are freaked out! The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has the largest giraffe herd of any zoo in the country (16 of them!) due in part to their prolific breeding program (200 births in 6 years). This was an unforgettable experience for everyone in my family.

There are a number of other animal feedings that are offered throughout the park. We happened upon the elephant feeding ($15 for an apple and carrot).  This a once-in-a-lifetime experience and great photo op! We also fed seed-encrusted, peanut butter sticks to rooms full of parakeets in the Budgie Buddies exhibit. There was another feeding exhibition we happened upon in the Rocky Mountain Wild area. A zoo attendant was illustrating what one specific grizzly bear preferred to eat (she liked meat, watermelon, and peanut butter but did not like cucumber!). These bears were HUGE and frightening! We watched as this one female bear swatted away undesirable food offered by the attendant while the other grizzly swam, ran around, and scratched itself on a dead tree.  They were pretty entertaining….but still scary as hell! 

The one experience that my family will not soon forget was our animal encounter at the Australian Walkabout. This habitat houses emus and a tree kangaroo and is located on the uppermost part of the zoo. This is a fairly steep, though gradual, walk (beware calf muscles!). The main section is a grassy, gated-off area where adult and baby wallabies hop all around you. They recline, bask in the sun, dig in the grass, take baths, sit next to you, and jump all around with no fear whatsoever. Being up close and personal with wallabies is not something I get to do everyday in Texas! We loved this!!

I was also quite impressed with the Reptile House. I have never seen such artistic and beautiful reptile enclosures – backdrops, shiny tiles, glass sculptures, etc. It was most unusual and very interesting. A few of my other highlights included seeing a baby meerkat and wallaby, taking a selfie with a giraffe, getting up close to a moose and grizzly, and stopping every now and then to catch the gorgeous views of Colorado Springs below us. It was prefect weather and made for a great day!

There is so much more to write about this zoo, but I was just impressed by how extensive the park was and how well it is constructed. I honestly do not like even calling this a “zoo” since it doesn’t have that feel to it. It is rather compact, easy to navigate, and feels more like a wildlife sanctuary.  All the animals appear to be healthy and happy – though I certainly can’t speak for them. There are none of the small, concrete enclosures with distressed, pacing animals that have always bothered me and given many zoos a bad name. The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo seems to give people a real sense of a natural habitat and doesn’t simply enclose the animals in cages for viewing. My family was impressed.

I hope that you get to visit Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in the future. If you get the opportunity, I suggest you wear comfy shoes, take water and apply plenty of sunscreen. You will be glad you did!

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The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is a non-profit and does not receive any local or public tax support. They participate in more than 30 Cooperative Species Survival Programs. The zoo is open 365 days a year.

Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille

Dallas, Texas

If you are looking for that perfect fine-dining meal, I would like to suggest Perry’s in uptown Dallas. This is a great restaurant for a date night, a celebration or a business meeting. 

Perry’s Steakhouse has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a meat market and butcher shop that began in 1979. Today Perry’s remains true to its roots and serves only the finest cuts of hand-selected, USDA-aged prime beef and pork. If you are a meat lover – this is definitely your kind of place.

My husband and I just recently dined at Perry’s for the third time and had another wonderful dining experience. The valet parking is very convenient and affordable ($5). The upscale interior is warm and inviting, refined and elegant. I immediately noticed the beautiful light fixtures that set the tone and give the dining rooms a romantic ambiance. There is a modern bar area, a 5,000-bottle “wine wall”, several large open dining areas, an outdoor patio and a sunken wine cellar where we were seated. It was very cozy, private, and comfortable. The award-winning menu offers an impressive list of wine and cocktails. Appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts are all upscale and every dish is high quality.  Service has always been very attentive, personable and prompt.

During the month of July,  Perry’s is offering two special anniversary menus. On Sunday evenings they offer a 3-course Pork Chop Dinner (salad, pork chop and dessert) for $34.95. They are also offering an evening special “4 for $44” (appetizer, salad, entree and dessert). These are both great deals since the 32 oz. pork chop usually runs $40 alone!

Now let’s talk about their incredible Signature Pork Chop. Perry’s famous pork chop is a “7 finger high” pork chop (think three, very thick pork chops stacked on top of each other). The pork is cured, roasted, slow-smoked and then caramelized. It is brought out to your table whole and is then carved table-side for your viewing pleasure. It is cut and separated on your plate with one huge chunk of pork loin (fork tender), the eyelash (the tastiest and most tender part) and the three individual, thick-cut, bone-in pork chops (very flavorful). It is absolutely delicious and enough meat for at least two people. This is served with a side of tasty applesauce. Perfection.

We chose to have the “4 for $44” special this particular evening. We began with house-made Polish Sausage and Fried Asparagus appetizers. Both were good but my favorite was the battered asparagus spears with a garlic/lemon/butter sauce and the crab topping. Yum! The Caesar Salad and Kale Salad were both fresh and delicious. My favorite here was the Kale Salad with its tangy jalapeno vinaigrette dressing, shaved parmesan, and tiny, crunchy croutons. Next came our entrees – the signature Pork Chop for my husband and the Chicken Oscar with Roasted Aparagus for me. The two chicken cutlets were well-seasoned and the lump crab meat was very tasty but nothing really compares to that hunka-hunka pork chop! Our dessert choices were the Dessert Trio (vanilla bean crème brulée, chocolate crunch and praline cheesecake bites) and the Nutty D’Angelo – which we shared. This “nutty” dessert was quite the spectacle. The wait staff came to our table and flambéed crushed pecans, brown sugar and brandy and poured it over a huge ball of vanilla ice cream that was topped with white chocolate and almonds plated on a chocolate drizzled dessert plate. Need I say more?

Overall, we had a great dining experience. It is rare when we hit the trifecta these days with service, food, and atmosphere. Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille is well worth checking out and I hope you go visit during the month of July for these great money-saving specials. Perry’s is not inexpensive… but the quality and quantity of food easily justifies the cost. Bon appetit!

 

Prayer Lavender Garden

Rockwall, TX

I just found another one of Rockwall’s little hidden jewels – Prayer Lavender Garden near Terrell, Texas. This small lavender and herb farm is owned by a young husband and wife team. The couple started the farm after being awarded the Young Farmer’s Grant from the Texas Department of Agriculture. They just opened a few weeks ago on June 8th.

Prayer Lavender Garden encompasses 3 acres of beautifully maintained farm land. There are over 2000 lavender plants (3 varieties), 200 blueberry bushes and a variety of herbs. There is also a greenhouse, a bee hive, a playground, and several garden areas. If you prefer to be reflective, there are various benches on the property where you can sit and relax while enjoying the scenery.

The Barn is the onsite store and is filled with all types of natural, handcrafted lavender and herb products for purchase. There is a nice selection of fresh lavender, dried lavender, lavender wreaths, and sachets. Check out the great selection of lip balms, lotions, candles, bath bombs, soap, wax melts, coffees, teas, scone mixes, and spices. They also have fresh coffees and lemonades for sale. The homemade blueberry lemonade was delicious.

Step outside The Barn and you can grab a bite to eat at the outdoor cafe – the Daily Bread Cafe. They offer lemonades, limeades, coffee, tea and soft drinks. Foods include hummus, spinach artichoke dip, salads, sandwiches and chips. Don’t miss out on the delicious pie slices (apple cinnamon, lavender honey blueberry, cherry pear, and blueberry!) or a homemade scone. There are nice outdoor tables and seating available  at the cafe where you can eat your meal and enjoy the scents of the lavender plants all around you.

I just visited here with a group of lady friends and we really enjoyed it. The owners were extremely friendly and helpful and the entire farm is clean, neat and well laid out. We wandered through the gardens, then visited the shop to purchase a few items to take home. It is well worth a short visit and to grab a bite to eat. Don’t forget to take a slice of pie home – it was fabulous!! Check their website from time to time as well because they offer some wreath-making classes. What fun!

The Prayer Lavender Garden is open Friday and Saturday from 9:00 – 6:00 and Sunday 9:00 – 5:00. I hope you take the time to go visit and check it out for yourself. Enjoy!

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Magnolia Table

Waco, Texas

On a visit down to the Magnolia Market and Silos in Waco with a friend a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t think a “Chip & Joanna Gaines / Fixer Upper” excursion would be complete without a visit to their newest endeavor – the Magnolia Table.

Waco’s old Elite Cafe is now the Magnolia Table and the latest money-maker in the Fixer Upper empire. Built in 1919, the Elite Cafe was a very popular stop for people driving to and from Dallas and Austin for many decades. It was famous for being the first air-conditioned building in Waco and was rumored to be where Elvis dined with friends on his way to Fort Hood. Elite closed its doors in 2016. Many Waco residents, including Chip and Joanna, hated to see this designated historic landmark fall into disrepair and ruin.

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Chip Gaines had always dreamed of owning a “breakfast joint” and the timing seemed to be right. This location, only 10 minutes from the Magnolia Silos, became the couple’s next big investment. They were beginning to film the last season of their show and were figuring out their next move.  They purchased the Elite and began renovations. Magnolia Table ended up being a two-year, two-million dollar project when all was said and done. They opened the doors on February 26, 2018.

All renovations had to comply with Texas Historical Commission guidelines due to the building’s historic landmark status. Joanna needed to design a plan that preserved the building’s history while giving it a fresh start – I think she did a great job!  The restaurant’s new interior has clean lines, stunning natural light, black & white tile floors, shiny subway tiles, stylish lighting fixtures, beautifully vaulted ceilings, and redwood beams. Joanna Gaines did not try to reinvent anything – she just came up with a great, open design and put thought into every small detail (I particularly liked the hooks for your purse and leather pockets to stash your phone in that are at each table). Old black & white Elite Cafe photos, mirrors, decorative water carafes, vases with greenery, and fresh flowers add to the ambiance and the farmhouse charm. Metal signage reminds you “the good ole days are still to come” and “everyone has a seat at the table.” 

 

Magnolia Table is only open for breakfast and lunch. They do not take reservations so be prepared to come and chill for a while. Fortunately, there is a nice outdoor waiting area with a covered patio, an open patio, a coffee and pastry bar, a kid’s play area, and a takeaway market and gift shop on site. When you check in, you are given a phone app that updates your place in line and is very handy. It is all very efficient and the staff is super friendly.

Once you get into the restaurant, the menu is simple. Magnolia Table serves old-fashioned, down-home cooking – think diner food. They advertise that they try to use only fresh, homegrown ingredients and state that most of the produce comes from Joanna’s farm or from local vendors. My friend and I dined here for brunch/early lunch and wanted to split some choices. We ordered the Silos Baking Co. Bread Basket (butter croissant, chocolate croissant, zucchini bread, blueberry muffin and lemon poppyseed bread) for starters. This fresh pastry basket was well worth the $10 cost and we had leftovers!  I then had the Avocado Toast for my meal and it was delicious. The creamy avocado was spread on multi-grain toast, served with microgreens and a side of sea salt and red pepper flakes ($8). My friend ordered the French Toast Breakfast that came with two slices of toast, strawberry butter, two eggs, peppered bacon and tater tots for $12. The Alabama Sweet Tea was the perfect addition to our meal and everything tasted fresh and delicious. It was most enjoyable and inexpensive for the quantity of food served. Other menu items include burgers, sandwiches, salads, desserts, etc.

Now for the honest part of this dining and travel blog.    Did I enjoy my visit here?  I did, very much so.   Am I a fan of Fixer Upper and Chip & Joanna?  Most definitely.   Did I mind an hour wait for a decent meal?  Not really, since it was my first visit. I enjoyed exploring the TakeAway Market and the grounds.  Would I want to rush back anytime soon for the same experience?  Probably not.  Would it be worth the 2-3 hour wait that we heard was normal on the weekends?  No way. Not ever.  Would I suggest that you visit the Magnolia Table?   You bet! Especially if you are a fan of Fixer Upper, Chip and Joanna Gaines. It is a must see. A visit to Waco and the Magnolia Market and Silos wouldn’t be complete without a stop here for a meal.

Will I go back anytime soon? Maybe when friends or family come to visit and want to make a trek down to Waco in the far-off future. I learned a long time ago – never say never!  After all, if the Elite Cafe/Magnolia Table was good enough for Elvis…..it is good enough for me…..again!

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Magnolia Market at the Silos

Waco, Texas

 

I want to give a big heartfelt thanks to Chip and Joanna Gaines for putting Waco in the national limelight! If you are a fan of HGTV, home renovations, or interior decorating – you are most likely familiar with the very popular dynamic duo, Chip and Joanna, from the show Fixer Upper. If you haven’t heard of them, you may be living under a rock.

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Let’s start with their backstory. In 2003 the Gaineses opened their first Magnolia Market in a small storefront on Bosque Street in Waco. They also started Magnolia Homes Construction and worked both of these businesses as they started their family. Chip headed up the construction side – Joanna ran the design part of the business. Their creativity, work ethic, popularity, and down-home Southern charm soon landed them starring roles in the Fixer Upper show in 2014. The rest, they say, “is history.”

 

 

After a couple of years of running their businesses and filming their cable show, Joanna’s home decor business had physically outgrown the original Magnolia Market shop. They now had their eyes on a sprawling downtown Waco property that included 2 huge rusty grain silos, a 20,000 sq. ft. abandoned barn, and 2.5 acres of property. This site had housed the historic Brazos Valley Cotton Oil Company (built in the 1950′s) and had sat in ruin for decades. With their vision, capital, and hard work – the Gaineses opened the Magnolia Market at the Silos in October 2015. They did an impressive job of re-purposing this decayed agricultural property and have now turned it into a goldmine.

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The Magnolia Market at the Silos now welcomes more visitors (200,000 more) than the Alamo each year! There are several parts that make up this compound today. The Magnolia Market is now a nationally- recognized store offering boutique decor, stylish home design accents, books, and gift items. There are two separate areas that make up the huge warehouse. Magnolia Seed & Supply is a little corner garden with a wooden teepee, produce beds, fresh flowers, and a garden shop. Silos Baking Company is a free-standing on-site bakery that sells cupcakes & cookies. These delicious sweet treats are Joanna’s personal recipes and the Gaines family’s handpicked favorites. 

 

 

If you have the opportunity to visit, make the time to wander around a bit and take in all the various moving parts of the property and fully appreciate all that it offers. It is not “just a store.” Besides the main warehouse building, iconic silos, and garden area – there is a large central green field (with artificial turf) for lawn games, picnic tables, benches, food trucks and gorgeous landscaping and design elements throughout.

 

 

While visiting the Magnolia Market last week, my mind kept flashing back to certain elements of Disney World. There were quite a few similarities between the two places. Both offered a nice, family-friendly in a “homey” environment. Everything was neat as a pin. Every employee was in uniform and was friendly and helpful. All displays were inviting and well-stocked. Every section was streamlined to get you in and out as efficiently as possible. There was not one piece of trash to be found anywhere and every single area we visited was clean, neat and pristine. And unfortunately, very much like Disney, there were lines everywhere!! It WAS crowded but most enjoyable, even after all was said and done!

 

 

Despite the crowds of people and the Texas summer heat I encountered last week, I still say that Magnolia Market is well worth a visit. It is such a great concept and lets you experience the work of Chip & Joanna Gaines first-hand. The show really doesn’t give this place the justice it deserves. I am so glad that they were able to see their hard work pay off and their dreams come to fruition. I also give “kudos” to the Gaines family for their tireless work in the revitalization of Waco (they employ over 600 people to help run their various businesses).  You make Texas proud.

 

La Jolla

California

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If you are looking for a beautiful seaside resort for a vacation getaway, look no further than La Jolla, California. This little town north of San Diego is located on seven miles of gorgeous Pacific Ocean coastline.

 

The name La Jolla actually comes from the Spanish words “La Joya” which means “the jewel”. Once you see this area – you will understand how it earned this name. There are gorgeous ocean views at every turn. Luxury shops, waterfront restaurants, boutique hotels, art galleries, and parks are located steps away from beautiful blue waters and breathtaking sea cliffs.

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My husband and I recently visited La Jolla after a vacation that included Palm Springs and Temecula. San Diego and La Jolla were the last stops on this California trip and all are within easy driving distances. We stayed at a little boutique hotel in La Jolla (Pantai Inn) just steps away from the coastline and in walking distance of shopping and restaurants. It was a perfect location!

 

The La Jolla Walking Trail was located right in front of our hotel property. This paved walkway runs from the La Jolla Shores Beach to the La Jolla Cove. It is favored by locals and tourists alike and is enjoyed by joggers, dog walkers, families, bikers and casual walkers – like us! We walked this trail several times and enjoyed the grassy parks, the spectacular ocean views, the hidden beaches, the rocky shores, and the sandstone cliffs.  We encountered numerous sea birds and sea lions along the way. One of the most popular spots along the trail is the La Jolla Cove. This is a very scenic, ecologically protected beach for swimming, snorkeling, and diving.  If you keep following the trail past La Jolla Cove, you end up at the La Jolla Sea Cave. This is a very unique, natural formation with heavy surf, crashing waves, and clear ocean water. This is also a popular area for divers and kayakers.  

 

One of our La Jolla excursions was to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. This park is located north of San Diego between La Jolla and Del Mar, along the rugged Pacific Ocean coastline. There are miles of hiking trails, odd-shaped pine trees, sandstone canyons, sea cliffs, ocean views, wide beaches, and championship golf courses. The park’s namesake, the Torrey pine, is the rarest native pine tree and is an endangered species that grows only in this park. You may recognize its familiar, wind-blown, asymmetrical shape.

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If you like outdoor adventure, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is definitely the place to visit near La Jolla. Just lace up your shoes, pack your sunscreen and water, and bring your camera! The hiking trails are all well-maintained and are well-marked. Some are easy, some are more difficult. There is plenty of parking and a ranger station to visit for info before heading out on the trailheads. All of the trails provide breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean from high vantage points. A couple of trails have beach access and will lead you to the cliff-lined, sandy beaches. Other trails are lined with huge sandstone structures, pine trees, succulents, and beautiful wild-flowers. I will never forget the picturesque views we encountered on the trails here.

 

At the end of these busy days of exploring, we were always extremely hungry and ready for a great meal. We found restaurants very close to our hotel – most in walking distance. The first night we dined at 910 Restaurant and had a most exceptional meal! We sat on the patio and had cocktails and one of the best culinary dishes I have ever had. The next night, we ate at the Crab Catcher and had a great ocean-view table that looked over the Sea Cave. We drank local California wine and dined on fresh seafood – delicious!

 

Great views, great adventures, and great food – what is not to like? La Jolla, you were truly a “jewel” to me! I enjoyed every moment – even the extremely smelly sea lions.

 

Food for thought – Dr. Seuss, Theodor Seuss Geisel, lived in La Jolla. I wonder if the strangely shaped, wind-blown Torrey pine trees were an inspiration for some of his crazy, whimsical, cartoon trees? There are reports that his Lorax tree was actually inspired by this tree we walked by in Scripps Park at La Jolla Cove. Who knew?!

 

 

Rapscallion

Dallas, TX

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I tend to get asked about brunch recommendations more than anything else that I blog about. Here is one of my recent favorites to pass along to you – Rapscallion.

This little neighborhood bistro is located on Lowest Greenville Avenue in the same strip center as Trader Joe’s. Rapscallion is the brain-child of three local chefs, one being Nathan Tate (Chef Tate is a Rockwall native and may be familiar to you from his co-ownership of Ava in downtown Rockwall). They have developed a very creative menu that I would describe as “modern Southern comfort with a Texas flair.”

Rapscallion’s decor is modern and rustic with both indoor and outdoor seating. Indoor seating is bright and open with a well-decorated bar area and open kitchen. Choose from cozy booths, high-top tables, regular tables or bar seats. One of my favorite things about this restaurant is the absence of televisions. Imagine that!! People can actually talk and visit with each other for a change. This makes for a very friendly, lively and enjoyable atmosphere.

Rapscallion’s latest brunch menu has a nice selection of drinks and cocktails. Pick your poison – I suggest a Mimosa, Peach Bellini, or Bloody Mary.  Next on the agenda…what to order? This is the most difficult part for me! Start with an order of Grammy’s Monkey Bread (cinnamon pecan sweet rolls baked in a cast iron skillet) or a Biscuit and Gravy. These are both great dishes for sharing. Let me stop here and say – Rapscallion KNOWS how to make biscuits, real Southern-style biscuits. Their square-cut biscuits are big, fluffy, and light – just the way they are supposed to be. And the gravy is thick, creamy and salty and exactly like my grandmother used to make. 

There are so many great entree choices on the brunch menu that it makes choosing ‘just one” very tough. Breakfast? Burger? Noodle Bowl? This is a tough decision! One of my favorite menu items is the Hot Brown, made famous at the Kentucky Derby.  This dish comes with thick slices of peppered turkey breast, crispy bacon, and sliced tomato served over toasted bread that is topped with a pimento cheese mornay sauce. Delicious! My other favorite brunch item is the Pulled Pork Benedict. This dish has an open-faced biscuit, mounds of lean pulled pork, poached eggs and a smoked peppadew hollandaise sauce. Both of the sauces on these two dishes are unique and dee-licious. I could eat the sauces, by themselves, with a spoon!

I haven’t made it back to Rapscallion for dinner but plan to in the very near future. Their Nashville Hot Chicken, Collard Greens, Macaroni & Cheese, Cornbread, Pickled Shrimp, Pimento Cheese and Shrimp & Grits are now on my radar and all sound quite intriguing. I also hear the Spicy Chicken & Biscuit and Sweet Potato Hash calling my name for another brunch!

I hope you will take the time to give Rapscallion a try for brunch or dinner sooner rather than later. When you get in the mood for inventive Southern food and cocktails in a casual, laid-back setting with friendly service – this is the place to go. Rapscallion certainly checked all the boxes for me! I hope to see you there.  🙂

Rocky Mountain National Park

Estes Park, CO

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Lace up your hiking boots and get ready to head to one of Mother Nature’s brightest stars – Rocky Mountain National Park. Not only is this one of my favorite places on earth, National Geographic agrees and named it “one of the best trip destinations in the world.”

The park entrances are located 75 miles west of Denver and on the edge of the scenic town of Estes Park, Colorado. The drive to Estes Park has some stunning views and once inside the park, the scenery is even more breathtakingly beautiful. This vast mountain wilderness is a natural masterpiece with views of jagged peaks, high mountain lakes, waterfalls, wooded forests, grassy tundras, and 130-million-year-old glaciers. The Continental Divide runs right through the center of the park and the headwaters of the Colorado River begin here. It is a very impressive place, to say the least.

Rocky Mountain National Park was established in 1915 and covers 415 square miles. It is one of those places that can be enjoyed by all ages and activity levels. You may choose to see the entire park while riding in the comfort of your vehicle. Drive along the Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuously paved highway in North America, to the Alpine Visitor Center (elevation 11,800 ft.) and you will feel like you are on top of the world! If you are a more active person, you can take advantage of all the hiking, rock climbing, camping, fishing and winter skiing that the park allows. There are almost 400 miles of maintained hiking trails throughout the park that go through the grassy valleys, aspen and pine forests, and around mountain lakes. Some of the more challenging trails run along rock slides, waterfalls and on up to several mountain peaks. How about a hike up to the 14,260 ft. summit of Long’s Peak? Yep, me neither!

I have had the opportunity to visit this park in spring, summer and fall and I must admit that each season was very unique in its own way. Early spring had many of the park roads closed due to snow and ice – but it was wonderful hiking around frozen lakes in the snow and watching locals suit up for cross county skiing and snowshoeing. It was truly a winter wonderland with pristine snow, bright blue skies and few people. Summer brought out the green grasses, new forest growth, and fields of beautiful wildflowers. The temperature was great and the streams and lakes were crystal clear and very cold from the icy snow melt. Fall was a burst of colors. The trees turned every shade of yellow, orange and red and stood out from all the green pines, spruces, and firs. Animals were more visible as they were “chowing down” and storing fat before the winter came. Each season brings something new and different to the park and I was lucky to witness the various stages.

I have many favorite memories from my visits here. I loved hiking at a couple of the lakes with my husband last April. We trudged through deep powdery snow and followed trails through the forest along the water’s edge. The weather was mild and the sky was bright blue. John Denver’s music played in my head, “the serenity of a clear blue mountain lake” could not have been more appropriate. We sat and drank it all in. On another visit the following year, we hiked over a field of granite boulders and enjoyed a picnic at the Alluvial Fan. The waterfall here was amazing! One of the best experiences I had at Rocky Mountain National Park was a late summer morning when my friend Britten Echols and I arrived early to spend the day there exploring. Our first stop was at Sprague Lake. We were immediately shocked at the sight of a nearby momma moose, a baby moose (hidden in the grass close to us) and a young male moose  – both calmly standing in the lake eating moss. It was a “pinch me” moment and certainly not something we were used to seeing everyday in Texas! We walked around this entire lake and had a great picnic lunch before heading off for an afternoon hike around Bear Lake. By the end of this magical day, we had encountered several chipmunks, mule deer, a huge rutting elk, and a whole herd of bighorn sheep. It was an unbelievable day.

If you enjoy wildlife, adventure and nature – add Rocky Mountain National Park to the top of your bucket list! This whole park encompasses a breathtaking collection of mountains (most with elevations over 12,000 ft.), high tundras, gorgeous vistas, dense forests, 7 glaciers, 2 waterfalls, 147 lakes, and a treasure trove of animals. You can camp, rent a cabin, book a hotel in nearby Estes Park, or drive from the Denver area for a day trip. The park is open 365 days a year, 24 hours per day. Cost can range from $20-$70 per day, depending on the season, and I can promise the trip will be priceless!

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir

Me too, John….me too.

Please feel free to leave comments regarding this blog. I love to hear about your experiences and insights pertaining to the places I write about. I would also appreciate you subscribing to my Southern Savvy Blog so that you can continue reading about my travel and dining adventures. Thank you!

Legacy Hall

Plano, Texas

If you have indecisive family and friends when it comes to choosing an eating place, Legacy Hall may be just what you need. Located just off the Tollway in Plano at Legacy West, Legacy Hall is a spacious food hall with 22 casual eateries and 8 bar areas. It is a sprawling, three-story, foodie’s dream!

Legacy Hall is this area’s first food hall and is currently the largest in the U.S.  The purpose behind Legacy Hall is to replicate the food halls that tend to be so popular in Europe. Most European food halls are public gathering places for all ages to enjoy a lively atmosphere, great drinks, and fresh foods from many local cultures – all under one roof.

Plano’s new Legacy Hall houses over 55,000 sq. ft. of food stalls, bars, breweries and seating areas.  Each food stall and bar has its own unique personality and specialties, and many are run by award-winning local chefs. There is also a Box Garden currently under construction, next to the main building, that will provide a stage and open area for outdoor entertainment. There will also be three shipping containers transformed into a BBQ restaurant, a margarita bar and a tiki bar for the outdoor patrons. 

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When I first stepped into this huge building with so many dining options, I was instantly overwhelmed! I highly suggest wandering around, taking a lap or two, and checking out all three floors and the food choices before deciding what to order. It is so easy to want that first yummy thing you set your eyes on, but just around the corner may be something much better!

The next suggestion I would like to pass along is to not bring cash. Legacy Hall only takes debit or credit cards. It makes it much easier for the cashiers at each food stall and does seem to help speed up the ordering and checking out processes. After ordering your food and drink, grab your cup (if not drinking alcohol) for your self-serve beverage. Head to one of the two huge drink stations on the first and the second floors to fill your cup with water, soft drinks, and some rather unusual specialty sodas. Finally, while waiting for your food order, go find a seat. The crowds can be pretty thick on the first floor during peak times so head upstairs to the second and third floors where tables and chairs seem to be more plentiful. The second floor has some really nice outdoor patio tables that give you great views over the Box Garden and areas below. On a day with nice Texas weather, the patio option is hard to beat!

The food choices here at Legacy Hall are too numerous to name. Let’s just say, there is something for everyone! Each food stall, the signage, and employees’ dress fits the culture or food-type being served. It is a sensory overload for your eyes, ears and nose. Here are a few of the ones that caught our attention:

Shawarma Bar (Mediterranean street food) – Sea Breeze Lobsta’ & Chowda’ (lobster and shrimp rolls) – Freshfin Poke (poke bowls) – FAQ’s (flautas and quesadillas) – Enter the Bao (dim sum and bao) – Detour (charcuterie and wine) – Bar Main (alcohol) – Berrynaked (frozen fruit popsicles) – Blist’r Naan Wraps (Indian) – Bravazo Rotisserie (Latin) – Carlton Provisions (BBQ) – Degenhardt’s Brat Haus (German) – Knife Burger (specialty burgers) – Red Stix Yakitori & Banh Mi (Vietnamese) – Press Waffle Co. (sweet & savory) – Whisk & Eggs (sweet & savory crepes) – Stillhouse (cocktails)…to name a few.

While walking around checking out food vendors, be sure to notice all the cute signs throughout the building. “Count memories, not calories” (I agree!) and “East, Slay, Love” were two of my favorites.  The restroom doors actually made me pause for a few seconds. I had to do a double-take to make certain this was the restroom and not service entrances for meat and produce. I stood there perplexed, deciding between “Bananas and Sausages” or “Eggs and Peaches” when it finally hit me! Kudos to whoever had a sense of humor when designing this area. You did well.  🙂

Legacy Hall is open 7 days per week. I do hope you get a chance to visit in the near future. My last words of advice – go hungry – and save room for dessert!

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Temecula

California

I have heard rumblings regarding Temecula for the past couple of years from friends who have visited the Southern California wine country. My husband and I had a tennis trip planned to Palm Springs and decided to add this excursion and La Jolla to the end of our California vacation. I must say – it was a great decision and we thoroughly enjoyed our day spent in Temecula. I just wish we had planned to stay longer, though it does gives me a reason to return in the future!

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The Temecula Valley Wine Country is located a short distance from Palm Springs (90 minutes), San Diego (90 minutes) and Los Angeles (2 hours). The name is actually a Native American word meaning “the sun that shines through the mist.”  This Mediterranean micro-climate with morning mist, warm midday sun, and cool evening ocean breezes makes this area perfect for growing all varieties of grapes.

For those of you who have visited Napa and Sonoma further north in California, the major difference is the landscape. Temecula has mostly hillside vineyards and more picturesque views with mountain backdrops. The wineries seem more casual, less commercial, less crowded, and are not spaced as far apart. This area reminded me more of Tuscany than the northern California wine country.

Though we did not have the time to experience all that Temecula had to offer, I would still like to share what we learned from friends. The Old Town area has historic 1800s buildings, antique shops and restaurants “fit for foodies.” There are over forty wineries in the area. Some are small & boutique, some are full-service wine and food resorts. There are spas, clothing shops, a casino, gourmet restaurants, golf courses, bike trails, horseback riding and hot air balloon rides. With three million visitors per year, there are a wide variety of places to stay. Choose from brand-name hotels, quaint inns, motels, vacation rentals or Bed & Breakfasts. Several of the wineries we saw also had their own lodging on-site.

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With only one day in Temecula we had to choose just a few wineries to explore. We began at Wilson Creek Winery and enjoyed their beautiful outdoor patio and sampled their high quality sparkling wines. This winery had come highly recommended from friends due to their Almond Sparkling Wine – delicious!  I also give two thumbs up for their Sparkling Sangria,  Sparkling Peach Bellini and Sparkling Rose’. This is one of the larger wineries with gardens, private tours, tasting rooms, and a restaurant.

Our next stop was Maurice Car’rie Vineyard (another friend’s suggestion) which was housed in a large Victorian-style farmhouse. We sat at a table on the front lawn overlooking the rolling hills and sampled their Chardonnays (oak and non-oak) and ate lunch. They serve up a huge crusty round of sourdough bread with fresh-baked brie inside. It paired perfectly with their crisp white wine.  This little winery was friendly, relaxed and unpretentious.

Next on our agenda, and only a couple of minutes away, was Bel Vino Winery. This was a little boutique winery sitting high on a hillside with great views from their back patio. I enjoyed their sense of humor with liitle signs leading up the walkway with sayings such as,”Wine not?” and “Get Merloaded This Way!” It was here that I enjoyed a most delicious port served in an edible chocolate cup. Perfection! This was a a very casual winery with picturesque views.

Our final stop of the day was chosen strictly because of location and the beautiful scenery surrounding the winery. Callaway Vineyard and Winery sat high on a hill surrounded by twenty acres of vines in the heart of Temecula.  This was a very modern, multi-storied building with lots of glass and clean lines. The outdoor seating areas were gorgeous with spectacular views below. I enjoyed something new here, a white wine called Roussanne. It was cool, dry, and tasted like a full-bodied chardonnay. My husband and I sat outside, drank our wine, snacked on mixed nuts, and hated that we had to leave this beautiful wine country so soon.

Though we didn’t have time to visit all the wineries and vineyards that we would have liked to, we enjoyed seeing many on our drive (this area is not too spread out). Architecture ranged from authentic farm settings, to Victorian style, to Spanish influences, to Tuscan inspired buildings.  All were unique and most were inviting. Besides the four wineries I mentioned in this blog that we experienced – other popular wineries in this area include Vindemia Vineyard, Avensole, Carter Estate, Gershon Brothers, Hart Winery, Foot Path, Lumiere, Miramonte, Falkner, and Fazeli Cellars. 

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I hope if you are a lover of travel and wine that this blog inspires you to take a trip to this little hidden gem in Southern California. I would recommend at least a two or three day stay here in Temecula. It is the perfect trip to add on to if you find yourself in the Palm Springs, San Diego, La Jolla, Orange County, or Los Angeles area. You will be glad you did!

Cheers!

 

 

Parigi Restaurant

Dallas, Texas

I first discovered Parigi several years ago and  remember thinking “how have I not heard of this place sooner?” I think foodies and the neighborhood locals have purposely kept this small restaurant one of their best-kept secrets!

This quaint little gem is tucked away on Oak Lawn (between Lemmon Avenue and Cedar Springs) and has been in this same location for more than thirty years. Their menu can best be described as creative New American cuisine with strong French and Italian accents (“Parigi” is the Italian word for “Paris”).

Chef/Owner Janice Provost wanted Parigi to be like “a bistro in Paris with a New York feel”  and she succeeded. The cozy interior setting is chic, intimate and comfortable. There is a lovely little outdoor patio in front complete with cafe tables and beautifully lit trees. The ambiance can be perfect for a brunch with friends, a date night dinner, cocktails with girlfriends, or a casual business meeting.

I have had Parigi as one of my “go-to” restaurants for years now because they always seem to be at the top of their game. I have dined here for special occasions with family. I have had some romantic evenings with my husband and have also grabbed a casual meal before a play or sporting event. I have also invited and dined with friends wanting to introduce them to Parigi’s wonderful fare. 

I have always found the staff and service to consistently be friendly and attentive. The restaurant has a very chic, but casual, dining atmosphere without any “snooty” pressure. Drinks are always refilled and dirty utensils and plates are whisked away. Quite frankly, the main reason I keep returning to Parigi is because the food steals my heart every time. The creative menu changes twice a month and I love that! It gives me something to look forward to each visit. I never know what new dish I might fall in love each time, so each visit is a new and exciting experience.

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Lobster BLT Trio with guacamole sidecar and a balsamic Eiffel Tower

Chef Provost sources their produce from local farmers, their cheese from small-batch cheese makers, and their seafood from sustainable fisherman. This is the main reason the menu changes frequently. They prepare their delicious entrees with whatever is fresh and in season at the time. Menu staples such as the Pappardelle, Gnocchi, Risotto and Fish are always featured – just with different ingredients and flavors depending on the growing season.