Loudoun Local: Great Spots for Romance and Relaxing

Another new feature I’ve been planning for a while!  I’ve been living in Loudoun County for nine years now – first in its suburban east, and then (because I like land and history and the fantasy that I might someday own goats and maybe a horse) in its beautiful rural west.  Loudoun has a lot to offer, as do its neighbors like Fauquier and Clarke, and I’m excited to showcase some of my experiences and hopefully inspire readers to come and explore this lovely part of Virginia.

So, whether you have plans with your sweetheart for Valentine’s weekend, or you just want to hang out with your friends or take yourself on a fun date (because you deserve it!), here are a few of my favorite spots for romance and relaxing in Loudoun County.

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For a unique, small-town shopping trip: The Aldie Peddler – Aldie, VA

This little shop is one of my favorite places in the world.  Wally, the chatty and charming proprietor and proud, though unofficial, Mayor of Aldie will make sure you feel like an old friend, and you won’t leave empty-handed (trust me).  Great wines from all over the world, gourmet snacks, quality outdoor furniture, and fun kitsch, all in a sweet little shop in an old house,  in a Loudoun County village that dates back to 1810.

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For brunch, or to spend a weekend: The Red Fox Inn and Tavern – Middleburg, VA

The Red Fox is one of the oldest taverns in the country, and it’s a beautiful spot to sit down and enjoy some delicious brunch favorites.  If you’re feeling a little more luxurious, book a room and stay for the weekend in Middleburg, the nation’s picturesque horse and hunt capital, full of good places to eat, fun shops, and friendly locals.

For dinner, and most especially for dessert: The Conche – Leesburg, VA

Upscale dining with a creative, cocoa-inspired menu, worth a visit for the chocolates and desserts alone.  Indulge your sweet tooth – you deserve it!

For an interesting stroll or a short, easy hike: The Village of Waterford – Waterford, VA

The entire Village of Waterford is a National Historic Landmark, and it shows.  The residents here take incredible care to maintain their properties to the highest historical standard, and when you walk through this little gem, you’ll truly feel like you’ve gone back in time.  You have a couple of walking options, depending on what you’re looking for.  There’s a walking tour through the Village itself:

Waterford Walking Tour

From the Village of Waterford’s website

Or a short hike that starts at the Village’s Old Mill:

Waterford Trail Map

From the Village of Waterford’s website

For a laid-back wine tasting: Zephaniah Farm Vineyard – Leesburg, VA

This vineyard sits on a family farm, and tastings are conducted in the family’s house, which dates back to 1819, or in their new timber-frame barn.

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At the house, you’ll be invited to choose a comfortable spot on the first floor, where you’ll sample lovely wines at a leisurely pace surrounded by unique decorations and a few family heirlooms.  You’ll feel relaxed, looked after, and right at home.

For a craft brew and a good view: Bear Chase Brewing Company – Bluemont, VA

There are lots of breweries in Loudoun County, and quite a few of them boast a pretty amazing view.  Bear Chase is one of the newer additions to this list, and they’ve done everything right.  Enjoy a beer and a pizza by their cozy fireplace, or on their covered porch, or on their extensive lawn.  Fair warning, though – they get busy.  I’ve always been able to find a spot to sit and relax, though, and there’s usually good music on the weekends.  And just look at that view:

Bear Chase View

Bear Chase also sits near the Raven Rocks Trailhead and Bear’s Den overlook, so it’s a perfect spot for a post-hike beer with your sweetheart (or your bestie, or yourself, because like I said, you deserve it).

For cider, spirits, and a dance with the Green Fairy: Mt. Defiance Cidery and Distillery – Middleburg, VA

If wine and beer aren’t your style, head to Mt. Defiance. Named for the battlefield that sits just west of Middleburg, Mt. Defiance has a rustic cider barn on the east side of town, and a steampunk-chic distillery on the west.  At the barn, grab a glass of their famous Cider Kir – a dark red mix of their Farmhouse cider and Cassis liqueur – and sit in a rocking chair in front of the fireplace or on the patio.

Cider Kir

At the distillery, you have lots of choices – cute mini-cocktail flights, seasonal specialty cocktails, and for those brave enough to try, Absinthe.  Now, I’m kidding about being brave, because Absinthe won’t make you hallucinate, but it is pretty strong, and it tastes kind of like licorice.  I happen to like licorice, and the process of preparing Absinthe to taste is interesting to watch; but, if it’s just not your thing, then try the chocolate pairing, which features chocolates from The Conche, and is just really delightful.

Chocolate pairing

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And there you have it.  I know there are places I’ve surely missed that deserve to be on this list, so feel free to drop a line in the comments if I’ve not mentioned any of your favorites, or if there are places in Loudoun you’ve always wanted to visit.  But regardless of that, I hope I’ve given you some good ideas for this weekend, or really any weekend, and I hope you enjoy whatever you do, because, like I said (several times, in fact), you deserve it!

A Virginia Writer Goes to the Land of Fire and Ice

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A view of the water on Highway 47 around Hvalfjörður.

Funny story: Graham and I went to Iceland in March, I blinked, and now it’s nearly September.

I really have struggled with what to say in this post.  There are blog posts and articles all over the Internet about what to do in Iceland, how to save money, what to bring, and what you should know before you go.  The market for advice is…well, just a little saturated.  Not unlike my hair, my clothes, and my hiking boots after walking behind Seljalandsfoss on a damp day.

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Seljalandsfoss in south Iceland.

Worth it? Oh, absolutely.

With the collapse of WOW air and the rising sentiment that Iceland has become too much of a magnet for Millennials seeking adventure in its windswept landscapes, several of my friends asked me, when Graham and I got back, if our trip was worth it.  Worth the cost, worth the time, worth fighting the hordes of other eager tourists looking to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights and bathe in crystal blue waters.

Again – oh, absolutely.

So, instead of doling out advice that you can find elsewhere, I’m just going to tell you why, even now that you can’t score super-cheap WOW air tickets (spoiler: we flew Icelandiar and it was great) and even now that Greenland is the new hotness, you should absolutely, 1000%, without any hesitation book your trip to Iceland.

The tourist spots are actually worth a stop.

We’ve all been there – trapped in a cramped elevator on the Eiffel Tower, stuck behind some wailing kid while you’re trying to snap a picture of the Grand Canyon, desperately huffing it up the hill at Edinburgh Castle just barely managing to keep up with the tour guide.  In these moments, many of us – yes, even avid adventurers – can succumb to our lesser instincts and wonder, is this worth the hassle?  Well, yeah, of course it is, and Iceland is no different.

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Kirkjufell, on the Snæfellsnesnes peninsula in the west.

You should absolutely see the geysers, pet the shaggy ponies, scale the craters, and walk along the black sand beaches.

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Strokkur, on the Golden Circle.

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A thermal field along the Golden Circle, near Geysir.

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Kerið, a volcanic crater lake on the Golden Circle.

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A fluffy Icelandic horse I tried to make friends with on the Golden Circle.  He wasn’t interested.

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Reynisfjara Beach, facing Dyrhólaey, near Vík.

Go play in a glacier lagoon and spot diamonds on the shore.

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The Diamond Beach on Iceland’s south coast.

Will you have to deal with people?  Sure, but they’re just as excited to be there as you are.  Just give each other space and be patient.  It is worth the hassle.  I promise.

And if you go in the winter or early spring, there are ice caves.

And they’re really, really cool.

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An ice cave on Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier.

And they don’t all look the same.

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A black ice cave on Vatnajökull glacier.

A tour takes half a day.  You have time to do another cool thing in the morning, and then play in the ice all afternoon.  It’s kind of comforting to know that not all caves are dark and creepy.

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Layers of ice and ash.

My parents thought Graham and I were crazy to go to Iceland just when it was starting to warm up in Virginia, but if we’d gone in the summer, we would have totally missed this opportunity.

There’s plenty of culture and history to explore.

Iceland was first settled in 874 AD.  The country has a rich history.  Its people were and are a brave, hardy, and resourceful bunch.  You’ll spot history from the car driving to your next hotel.

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A traditional turf structure, on the road in south Iceland.

You’ll see it lauded in towns and cities.

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Lief Erikson, in Reykjavík.

And yes, there are museums, too.

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A ship on display in the Skógar Regional Museum.

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Traditional turf houses, which have been moved to the Skógar Regional Museum.

Don’t miss out on actually learning the history of this little island.  It will surprise you, and you’ll be better for knowing about it.

You don’t have to spend a ton of money on food and lodging. 

This was the view from our totally reasonably-priced Reykjavík hotel room:

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The view from our hotel room in Reykjavík.

And while we certainly splurged on a few meals, it’s not hard to find a quick bite.  Hot dogs are an Icelandic favorite, and they’re not expensive, and they’re pretty damn tasty.

Iceland is not the least expensive place Graham and I have ever visited, and if you fancy a beer or a cocktail, do be prepared to drop some coin.  But if you do your research and plan ahead, and if you aren’t visiting in the height of summer, your trip to Iceland won’t empty your bank account.

Icelanders have a sense of humor.

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The Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat, in Reykjavík.

They’re fun people, and they’ll appreciate your visit.

And they’re artistic, literary, and whimsical.

Did you know that Iceland is one of the most literate nations in the world?  Or that one in ten Icelanders will publish a book?  If you like reading or art, you’ll be happy in Iceland.

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Artwork on the side of a building in Reykjavík.

There’s also some stunning architecture.  This…

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Hallgrímskirkja, the cathedral in Reykjavík.

…was inspired by this:

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Basalt columns at Reynisfjara Beach.

You might even see a troll or two.

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A statue of Bárður Snæfellsás in Arnarstapi, a village on the Snaefellsnes peninsula.

Iceland is really just heartbreakingly beautiful.

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A view we happened upon when we made a wrong turn onto a dirt road, near Hvalfjörður.

Just look at it.

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Another view of Hvalfjörður.

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Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland.

You can see waterfalls, black sand beaches, glaciers, and mountains all in one day.

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Skaftafell National Park, near Öræfi in southeast Iceland.

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A pretty little waterfall we spotted from the road.

You can walk along a tectonic divide.

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Þingvellir National Park.

If you’re lucky, you can catch a glimpse of the aurora (probably while you’re driving and your camera equipment is packed into the back of the car and you need to take pictures quickly with your cell phone or else you’ll miss it…do find a safe place to pull over).

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Blurry cell phone photo 1.

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Blurry cell phone photo 2, with extra blurry stars.

The landscape in Iceland is unlike any other place in the world. Go see it.

If I haven’t convinced you to buy a plane ticket by now, let me leave you with this.

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Gullfoss.

That mythical, dreamland Somewhere over the rainbow?  I found it.  It’s Iceland.

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I don’t remember where this is, but isn’t it gorgeous?

Have you booked your trip yet?

Heaven is Music Everywhere: Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion

I grew up in music.  It’s how my family communicates, celebrates, mourns, loves, and just passes the time.

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I spent my childhood in an area of the country famous for its country music history.  I’m as formed by music and mountains as I am by the cells that build my body.  Music is in my blood.  My soul was nurtured by the sounds of guitars and drum sets and fiddles and banjos.  What I’m getting at here is that the one thing that makes me who I am, more than anything else in my life, is music.  My roots run deep and firm and, well, musical, in the brushy, misty mountains of Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee.

As they say, it’s Bristol, baby.  Or, more aptly for this post, it’s all about Bristol, baby.

You might have been to music festivals, but you’ve never been to a festival quite like Bristol’s Rhythm and Roots Reunion.  Bristol cemented its place in music history in 1927 with the Bristol Sessions, essentially the founding of modern country music.  Since then (and long before), Bristol and the surrounding area has been a gathering place for musicians and music lovers to come together, collaborate, and celebrate.  That’s what Rhythm and Roots is all about.

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Once a year, Bristol, a city that spans Virginia and Tennessee, closes State Street and its side streets for several blocks.  It sets up stages, brings in vendors for arts, crafts, and food, and invites musicians from all over the country to play for a three-day celebration of music and mountain culture.

There’s music everywhere.  There are stages and musicians tucked into every corner.  There’s a band in almost every bar and restaurant.  From Friday through Sunday, once a year, Bristol becomes a little piece of melodious, lyrical, pickin’ and strummin’ Heaven.  And it’s not just country music.  You’ll find Americana, folk, classic rock, rockabilly, alt rock, bluegrass, jazz and ragtime, and even some Celtic flare.  Music is a universal language, and Rhythm and Roots offers something for everyone.

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Ed Young of Ed Young and Friends, a three-person band featuring guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and upright bass, and Ed’s bluesy, deep baritone.

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Randi Denton, lead singer of Indighost, a rock band with a sound reminiscent of 1960s psychedelia.

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Blair Crimmins, front man of Blair Crimmins and the Hookers, an energetic Dixieland, jazz, and ragtime band.

I love Rhythm and Roots because it captures the spark that makes music what it is.  Music is more than just sound waves.  Music is important.  Music is culture.  Music is identity.  Music is home, and as long as you never lose the music, you’ll always carry your home with you.

I’ve done cartwheels across State Street that carried me from Virginia to Tennessee, and I’ve stood many times in two places at once.  I’ve spent some of my most memorable days in the green room and on the stage of Bristol’s impeccably restored Paramount Theatre.

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I’ve lived in Northern Virginia for seven years.  I’ve done my time in fast-paced, competitive jobs.  I’ve commuted three hours each day.  I think I fit in well enough here, now.  But it’s not home.

Home is where the heart is, and my heart’s tucked safely away in the mountains where I grew up.  I might have left them, but they’ve never left me.  Every time I go to Rhythm and Roots, I’m grateful all over again that I grew up in the land of biscuits and gravy, Johnny Wood and fishing, flatfooting, porch sitting, moonshine, and music.

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*Some links, for anyone who’d like to learn more about the festival or the bands I’ve mentioned here: Bristol Rhythm and Roots ReunionIndighostBlair Crimmins and the Hookers

A Little Something Different (or, Our Visit to Otium Cellars)

Sometimes, you’re just in the mood for something different.

Before I say more, I should note that I am a creature of habit, almost to a fault.  I eat the same salad every day for lunch.  I do the laundry on Mondays and Fridays.  I drink Irish Breakfast Tea at least once a day.  I read every night before I go to sleep.  When these things don’t happen, I get a little…anxious.  Graham would say hard to deal with, but I’m giving myself a break.

I’m not quite so particular about wine.  I like trying different varietals from different places, and I don’t really have a wine-drinking schedule (does anyone?).  But I do have a level of comfort with the grapes that are commonly used at Virginia vineyards and wineries.  I’m all about a peppery Virginia Cabernet Franc.  I love the way smoky Virginia soil brings out the minerality in a Viognier.

But sometimes, like I said, you’re just in the mood for something different.  Which is why Graham and I found ourselves at Otium Cellars last weekend.

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This place is picturesque.  Otium is a Latin word for leisure, peace, rest, and tranquility, and it fits the setting.  Rolling hills, silos, mature trees, and even horses, because, you know, Loudoun County.  It’s conveniently located right outside of the town of Purcellville, and for a fun side trip on the way, take a quick drive through the historic village of Lincoln, a little gem in the Loudoun County countryside.

We wanted to try Otium Cellars because of their reputation for German varietals, and particularly German reds.  Uncommon in Virginia, and executed very, very well at Otium.  Their tasting is well worth the cost, as it’s pretty extensive and the tasting room is a comfortable spot to relax on a weekend afternoon.  There wasn’t a single wine on the menu we wouldn’t have bought.  We ended up bringing home bottles of 2014 Blaufränkisch, 2014 Dornfelder (both reds), and 2015 Grüner Veltliner (a white).

We opened the Grüner Veltliner tonight.  We figured this would be one of the last 90 degrees days of the year (please, oh please!), and so a cold white wine seemed like the most logical choice.

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I’d never tried this varietal before.  This grape is grown primarily in Austria, and the grapes for this particular bottle were grown in Washington State.  It’s robust for such a crisp wine – a light, bright nose of citrus, with hints of apples and stone fruits (and I think just a touch of honey), light acidity and a bit of spiciness on the palette, and a delicate finish of white pepper.  Lovely, and absolutely perfect for a hot day like today.

I’ll feature the two reds that we bought a little later in the year.  I’m excited to pair them with some classic fall flavors (sage, cinnamon, cloves…how long until Thanksgiving?).  For now, I’ll enjoy my cold white wine, dream of cooler days and changing leaves, and heartily recommend a visit to Otium Cellars.

Cheers!

 

*If you’d like to check out Otium Cellars, here’s their website:  Otium Cellars

From the Bluegrass State to the Beach

We’ve successfully made it to Figure Eight Island in North Carolina!  We’re all settled in to our beach house, and recovering from our whirlwind stop in Asheville.

We didn’t leave Louisville, though, before trying a Hot Brown.

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Conclusively, the best sandwich ever, if not really a sandwich.

We also tried authentic, official, trademarked Derby Pie.

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And we enjoyed spending a little downtime at the Brown Hotel, and wandering around downtown Louisville and the riverfront.

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Our friends had a beautiful wedding, and overall, we enjoyed our time in Kentucky, even if the heat was a little intense.

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Asheville was, in a word, amazing.  I’d only ever been to the Biltmore Estate, and I was really looking forward to seeing the actual city in all of its artsy, mountain-urban glory. I was not disappointed.  I’m only sorry I didn’t take pictures.  A few of the interesting sites we ecplored:  the Thomas Wolfe House, the Asheville Community Theatre (once co-directed by Charlton Heston and his wife), lots of interesting shops and restaurants, and lots of…interesting…people (including an urban hippie meditating in the middle of a city park.  I’m not going to lie, I was jealous of the guy’s focus).

We had dinner at Rhubarb on Sunday night, and if you’re ever in Asheville, I would recommend you do the same.  The chef puts together a Sunday Supper every week, and the price for such a large meal was surprisingly affordable.  Here’s the website, if you’d like to learn more: Rhubard Asheville.

Yesterday, we loaded up the car again, and headed for our final stop.  On the way, we stopped at the best fast food place in the world (though Bojangles is a close second):

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I’m so happy we get to spend time with Graham’s family on this wonderful little island every summer.  Nothing makes this Virginia girl happier than combining travel and family tradition.  Except maybe travel, tradition, and a little wine on the beach.

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Bourbon at The Brown

We’re all settled in at the first stop on our road trip, and I think Louisville has treated us well so far.  We’re staying at the Brown Hotel, a 1920s beauty and the birthplace of the Hot Brown, a legend among sandwiches (no, really, it is).  We’ve not tried one yet, but we did spend some time at the Lobby Bar yesterday enjoying that old Kentucky favorite – bourbon.  When in Rome, right?

I went for an Old Fashioned, which is actually my favorite cocktail.  Unfortunately, no Old Fashioned will ever compare to the one I enjoyed here in Kentucky.

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Graham had a bourbon flight, because contrary to what the politics of the day would indicate, we can have nice things.

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If you’re ever in Louisville, I would definitely recommend spending at least one night at the Brown, and I would also heavily encourage you to spend some time in their Lobby Bar getting to know their bourbon selection.

We’re off to a wedding tonight, and then it’s full speed ahead to Asheville tomorrow.   As the song says, the road goes on forever and the party never ends…

Road Trip!

No rest for this weary traveler.  And that’s just the way I like it!

Tomorrow, Graham and I will head to Louisville, Kentucky for a wedding.  From there, we’ll stop in Asheville, North Carolina for a night, and then head to Figure Eight Island for a week with the family.

Road trips make me happy.  I’m all for big overseas adventures that require airplanes and very particular packing, but I think a road trip is one of the best ways to explore.  At the end of the day, even the familiar can be an adventure.

“Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.” –J.R.R. Tolkien

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The Last Frontier: A Virginia Writer Goes West, Part II

I can’t remember that I thought much about Alaska before I met Graham.  Maybe that it was cold in the winter and light in the summer and I’d heard there were mosquitoes?  I’m almost ashamed to say it, but I’d never had any strong desire to travel to Alaska.  I think it was in the first month of our relationship that Graham, who hiked through the wilderness there for a couple of weeks when he was eighteen, noted for me all the myriad reasons we should make a trip to Alaska, and, being too in love with him to see straight (I still am, by the way), I listened.  We resolved to plan a trip, whenever the opportunity came along.  Which it did, about a year ago.  One of our friends invited us along on an Alaska cruise her family was planning, and we said yes immediately.  In unison, if I’m recalling correctly.  It was a beautiful moment.

I wasn’t sure what to expect – I’d never cruised before, and I’d never been to Alaska, so it was like a double whammy of the anxious uncertainty and nervous excitement that I always feel before a big trip.  I don’t know how a trip can live up to your every expectation when you don’t know what your expectations are, but this one did.  So, for those who, like me, have never cruised and have never been to Alaska, here are some of the things I learned.

Cross Country Flights Are Pretty Much the Worst

Five and a half hours.  That’s nearly a flight from Dulles International to England.  That is a flight from Dulles International to Iceland.  Five and a half hours.  No meal, no free booze, no complementary pretzels or cookies, no free movies or television (seriously, we even had to pay to see the flight path and progress).  I don’t know if every airline does it that way, but the flights to and from the West Coast were just awful.

Cruises Are Fun!

Yep, they sure are!  Food and alcohol readily available and easily accessible at all hours, a casino, several different bars, a karaoke lounge, a dance club, a spa, pools and hot tubs, decks for relaxing and taking in the passing scenery…a cruise ship is really like an all-inclusive resort that just happens to float.  Add a few good friends, some beautiful Alaskan mountains, and a couple of family costume parties, and I had a great time!

But, They’re Not Really My Thing

Don’t get me wrong here.  If we got another opportunity to take a cruise, especially to somewhere tropical, I certainly wouldn’t say no!  And, just like we did this time, I would spring for the balcony room.  But, as a traveler, I like to plan my own schedule, see what I want to see when I want to see it, and try my best to blend in with the locals.  I don’t really like being labeled a tourist, and I would like to think I don’t behave like one.  In short, gift shops?  No, thanks.

The truth is, when you step off of that cruise ship, you are immediately identifiable as a tourist, and almost every shop and attraction within site of the ship is operated specifically for the ship.  My recommendation, if you find yourself in this situation, is to get farther away from port, and explore the “real” place you’re visiting.  Sometimes, though, you just gotta go with it.  So, we tried out the tourist thing in Ketchikan.

We visited Dolly’s House Museum, an interesting piece of America’s more sordid history that belonged to the town’s most acclaimed and industrious prostitute, and walked the Married Man’s Trail behind it (so named because a married man could walk back to town on that trail with little chance of being seen).  Here’s a little more information on Dolly’s House Museum, if you’re interested: Dolly’s House Museum on Alaska.org.

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We also stumbled upon an easy trail that ran along the shoreline and had fantastic views.  We were able to walk a little more than a mile out, and make it back with plenty of time to get back on the boat.

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Towel Animals Make Me Laugh

Who knew?

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Harley Davidson Shops Are Everywhere

My dad rides a Harley, and I really wanted to get him some Alaska souvenirs.  I thought it would be hard to do, but there was a Harley shop in every port.

Starbucks, Not So Much

Our friend Anthony had a little more trouble with his souvenir hunt.  He collects Starbucks mugs, and the only Starbucks in Juneau was twenty miles away from the docks.  Unexpected, but true.

Water Taxis Are a Thing

Did you know this?  I didn’t.  One of our stops was Victoria, British Columbia, and taking a water taxi was such a fun way to get from place to place!

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Unexpected, Out of Place Surprises Are Little Gifts from the Universe

Allow me to present to you, a photo of a fiddle group.  Playing Scottish reels.  In one of North America’s oldest Chinatowns.  In Canada.

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It’s like the universe said, “Hey, Katie, this weirdness is exactly what you need! Enjoy!”

My Body Is Strong

I’m a little self-conscious about the weight I’ve gained since college, and coming to the end of my twenties, I don’t really take care of myself the way that I should.  But in spite of all that, I was still able to paddle a canoe out to the Mendenhall Glacier, and I loved it.

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I was still able to hike the rocky, four-mile trail up to the Laughton Glacier, and I loved that, too.

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I might be a little chubby, but my body is strong, and I’ll never doubt my physical capabilities again.

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But, It Is Wise and Necessary to Invest In the Right Equipment

I hiked a lot in college, and somehow never bought good hiking boots.  For this trip, Graham pretty much insisted that we fork over the loot for a good pair, and I’m glad I listened.  I don’t think I would have made it up the trail to see the Laughton Glacier without my Merrills.  I should also commend Packer Expeditions and our guides Wyatt, Megan, and Ruth, for making sure we had trekking poles, creepers, snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, and really anything else we needed for our glacier hike.  If you’re ever in Skagway looking for something to do, I would definitely recommend checking out their list of activities: Packer Expeditions.

Glaciers Are Awesome Forces of Nature, and We Should Take Care of the Environment So That Future Generations Can Enjoy Them

Seriously, look at them.

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Really, really look.

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These ice giants are ancient.  They’ve carved out mountains.  They’ve created rivers.  And they’re still here.  I feel very lucky that I was able to see so many of these beauties in Alaska, and I hope that my children and their children and their children’s children’s children will have the same opportunity.

But Even If You Don’t Get a Chance to See Glaciers, Alaska Is Still Heartbreakingly Beautiful, and You Should Go There

I felt like I’d stepped into a painting pretty much the whole trip.  I didn’t know the earth could look like this in real life.

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Plan a trip to Alaska.  Unless you’re just an unhappy person who hates life, you absolutely won’t regret it.

And, If Your Friends Go With You, So Much the Better!

I’d never traveled with friends before, and man was I ever missing out.  I’m lucky to have such amazing rock stars in my life.  Here’s to the next one, guys!

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Bob Dylan Wrote Every Song and Wine Is Good

One of these statements is true.

If you’re like me, the last thing you want to do when you get home from a trip, especially if the getting home has been hectic and tiring, is get ready, rush to make it to something on time, and sit for several hours (airplane flashbacks, right here).  But that’s exactly what Graham and I did last night, and it was the best decision we could have made.

We spent a lovely weekend in Alabama with family, and getting home on Tuesday turned out to be an epic journey.  A three hour delay in Mobile, a mad dash through Atlanta to catch our connecting flight home, unpacking at midnight.  Then, Graham picked up the Annie-dog at 6:00 a.m. yesterday and worked all day.  When he got home at 5:00, we packed a bag in a hurry, for what felt like the millionth time.  But this time, we packed it with bread, cheese, salami, and wine.  And this time, we drove just thirty minutes away from home to see Mavis Staples and Bob Dylan at Wolf Trap in Vienna, VA.

A couple of obligatory wine photos, since I missed my Wine Wednesday post this week and attended a concert instead (worth it, obviously).

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For me, we opened a bottle of Butter Chardonnay.

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For Graham, a bottle of Sunset Hills Sunset Red.

Both are good for a picnic, and both will please a crowd. (Though…we didn’t share.  Don’t judge!  Our friends brought their own wine!)

I don’t know what better “welcome home” there is than a picnic with good wine, good food, good friends, and good music.  Travel is one of my greatest pleasures, but I’m grateful and lucky that coming home is wonderful, as well.  Cheers!

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The Emerald City: A Virginia Writer Goes West, Part I

Picture this – You’re cramped in an airplane window seat with your feet curled up in the corner so that your husband, who’s spent the whole trip curled into the middle seat with T. Rex arms, can be a little more comfortable.  You’ve been in stuck in one spot for five hours.  You’re exhausted.  You woke up at 4:30 in the morning to catch this flight, and you ate what can only be described as the worst breakfast in the history of food at the airport.  Your stomach kind of hurts.  You’re thirsty.  The button at the top of your jeans has been digging into your stomach for the last hour.  And then, the plane makes a turn, and from the tiny, dirty window, you see Mount Rainier, its peak gleaming in the sunshine, and the Space Needle, and some crystal blue water, and the Seattle skyline.  You forget everything else, because you know you’ve made it.  You’re finally here, and it’s time to explore.

I’ve always wanted to go to Seattle.  As a little girl living in the sometimes isolating (but always comforting) Virginia Appalachians, the thought of going west was like the great exciting unknown.  As an adult, the thought of a laid-back city on the water where people love art and walking and value time for hobbies almost sounded like a fantasy world.  For the last seven years, I’ve lived in the chaotic, busy, you-are-your-job-title jungle that is Northern Virginia.  I did move west to get away from all that – to Loudoun County – but I still wanted to go farther.  That exciting unknown still beckoned.  There’s a little pioneer spirit in all of us, I think.

After waiting years to see Seattle, it lived up to every expectation I ever had.  I can’t say enough about the friendly people, the well-maintained, litter-free, tree-lined sidewalks, the culture of walking and being outside, the food, the attractions, the history and the quirks and the coffee, and really just everything.  I’ve struggled with this post, because there’s so much I want to say.  So, true to my type-A self, I decided to make a list.  Here are my ten favorite Seattle experiences.*

*Long post ahead…you’ve been warned!  But keep reading, and then plan your own trip to Seattle!

10.) Zeeks Pizza – We liked this place so much, we ate here twice.  We’ve got some pretty solid pizza choices in NOVA, but Zeeks had some of the most interesting, creative pizzas I’ve ever seen.  They’ve got a wide selection of meat and vegetarian pizzas, they’re flexible with toppings, and they’ve got plenty of beer and cider on tap.  Also, the breadsticks are basically the best breadsticks I’ve ever had.  We tried the Dragon on our first visit (Italian sausage, fresh jalapeños, pepperoni, fresh garlic, and fresh oregano), and had the Cherry Bomb for lunch on our last day in the city (Italian sausage, sweet-hot roasted red peppers, parmesan cheese, and fresh basil).  We like spicy food, obviously.  At any rate, Zeeks was awesome, and no other pizza will compare for at least the next year.  We ate at the Zeeks on Denny Way, near the Space Needle and the EMP Museum, but I did a quick map check, and they have a few locations around the city.  Here’s the link to their website, for anyone interested in checking it out:  Zeeks Pizza

9.) The Gum Wall – I didn’t know this was a thing.  Seriously, it’s kind of gross.  But also kind of fascinating.  People just show up in this alley and stick their gum to the walls, and it’s like a big, smelly public work of art.  You can’t look away.  It’s located on Post Alley, not far from Pike Place Market.  Some of the interesting things people have created with their chewed gum (seriously, yuck!!):  an American flag, an Israeli flag, several hearts with initials inside, names and nicknames, short religious and political statements, and some really interesting stretched-chewed-gum sculptures.  Seattle scraped the wall clean in 2015.  Clearly, that didn’t last.

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8.) Olympic Sculpture Park – We kind of stumbled across this place walking back from the Space Needle on our first day in the city, and didn’t realize what we’d found until I happened across a plaque with information on the site.  It’s right on the water, and a perfect place to relax and enjoy art and a view.  And, the best part is, it’s free and open to the public 365 days a year.  The site was previously an industrial park and had become a brownfield until the Seattle Art Museum proposed turning it into a green space, and it’s been a sculpture park since 2007.  I love stumbling across cool stuff when I travel, and this was like a little gift from the universe when I needed a place to sit and unwind for a little while.  Here’s the website, for anyone who’d like more information on the park, the sculptures, or the Seattle Art Museum:  Seattle Art Museum – Olympic Sculpture Park

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7.) Capitol Hill – We have one of these in DC, too, but it’s not nearly as fun (though I guess that depends on who you ask).  A few months before our trip, an old friend from high school got in touch with me, and let me know he was planning to move to Seattle – no job, no friends there…he just felt like it was time to throw off the bowlines and do something exciting.  Pretty cool, right?  Anyway, of course I wanted to see him.  So what if it took twelve years and a trip across the country for us to reconnect after high school, even though we worked in the same town for a solid year?  Life happens.  We got together around lunchtime and decided to amble around Capitol Hill.  Lots of neat stuff to see here.  There’s a Jimi Hendrix statue, dance step diagrams on the sidewalks, the best coffee I’ve ever had (Espresso Vivace, and even Emeril Lagasse thinks so, and here’s their website: Espresso Vivace).  There’s even a haunted soda machine!  Though, it didn’t really work for us.  My favorite thing to do when I travel is walk around the streets, try to blend in, and see how the locals actually live, and wandering around Capitol Hill, with an old friend at that, was the perfect way to spend an afternoon.

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6.) The Space Needle – I posted previously about the Space Needle, because there was wine!  Here’s the link: This wine post brought to you by….  I won’t rehash the details about the wine, but I will say this: I am petrified of heights.  I have trouble with second story balconies.  I also hate elevators.  It’s just unnatural for human beings to ascend to great heights in little metal boxes pulled by cables.  I still got to the top of the Space Needle, and it was worth it. For the amazing views of the city, for the chance to experience one of the country’s best-known landmarks, for the feeling of accomplishment when I got to the top and didn’t have a panic attack.  It probably helped that on the way to the elevators, there are panels with history and information about the Space Needle to read, because distraction is a good way to combat sheer terror.  It probably also helped that the Space Needle sits in a very nice park, and there was a busker playing some beautiful, soothing music on a kokoryū as we were walking in.  Bonus – You can buy a combo ticket for both the Space Needle and Chihuly Garden and Glass.  It’s a good deal.  Here’s the website, if you want to plan your visit:  The Space Needle.

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5.) Chihuly Garden and Glass – My first introduction to Dale Chihuly was actually in Virginia Beach, at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art where they have a stunning Chihuly chandelier.  I was excited to see this museum because of that chandelier.  Chihuly is a genius, a  pioneer and innovator in glassmaking.  He finds inspiration from everything, from the specific (his mother’s garden, Native American baskets and weaving) to the everyday (nature, color, light).  This museum showcases an eclectic array of his work, and if you don’t feel something walking through it, I don’t know that you’re actually human.  If you’re not certain whether or not you are, in fact, human, and you want to find out for sure, or if you love art and want to know more, here’s the website so you can plan your visit: Chihuly Garden and Glass.   Here are some of the exhibits and features that caught Graham’s eye:

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4.) The EMP Museum – Nerd alert!  Yes, I admit it.  I am a nerd.  And this museum (Music + Sci-fi + Pop Culture) is awesome.  It celebrates the risk-takers, the innovators, and the ideas that shape contemporary pop art and culture.  On the day we visited, they had exhibits on Star Trek (so cool, lots to see, plan an hour or more just for this), Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana, Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and the history of the guitar, and that really wasn’t all.  I have so much respect for the people who run this museum and the people who put the exhibits together, and if I ever visit Seattle again, I’m allotting a full day to exploring this place.  Here’s to the inventors, the thinkers, the dreamers, and the weirdos that make this world interesting!  To learn more about the EMP Museum, check out their website: EMP Museum.

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3.) Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour – I also didn’t know this was a thing, until my old friend told me about it as we were chatting about what Graham and I should do with our evening.  This tour bills itself as “Seattle’s most unusual attraction, a humorous stroll through intriguing subterranean storefronts and sidewalks entombed when the city rebuilt on top of itself after the Great Fire of 1889.”  (Quoting from their website.  Here’s the link: Underground Tour.)  It’s a 75-minute tour, and our guide was fantastic.  Very basically, current downtown Seattle (Pioneer Square and such) is built on top of the burned out ruins of old downtown Seattle.  We got an interesting history lesson while we wound our way through the (supposedly haunted!) old city underneath the current sidewalks.

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2.) The San Juan Clipper – My mom gave us a book for Christmas this year called 1,000 Places to See Before You Die by Patricia Schultz.  Noted in that book are the San Juan Islands, so of course we made time for this day-long boat tour on the San Juan Clipper up through Deception Pass to Friday Harbor.  We left from Seattle, steps from our hotel, and made our way up the Puget Sound to San Juan Island.  The islands, by the way, are just as breathtaking as the book says.  The San Juan Clipper also has a snack bar and coffee, which was helpful, because we got up early in the morning to catch it.  Optional with the tour is some extra time on the boat for whale and marine wildlife watching, and Clipper Vacations is the only company leaving from downtown Seattle for whale watching tours.  I love the water, and it was relaxing to spend some time on a regular-sized boat enjoying the waves and the wildlife before boarding a cruise ship bound for Alaska.  Information and pricing available on their website: Clipper Vacations.

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1.) Pike Place Market – If you’ve stuck with me this long, I’m sure you knew this was coming.  My favorite place in Seattle, of course, was Pike Place Market.  It’s also in 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, but I’ve wanted to see it for years.  Amazing.  Just amazing.  There’s something for everyone – food, crafts, buskers, beverages, condiments, there’s a shop for everything you could think of.  We stopped at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese and verified that theirs is, indeed, the best mac and cheese in the world (we did this at 10:30 a.m., right after breakfast, and I’m not ashamed).  From the seating in the store, you can see them make the cheese, which is interesting.  We also tried lots of samples from Pappardelle’s Pasta, and purchased some, as well.   They were so friendly and helpful, and made it super easy to have our pasta shipped back home, so it wouldn’t get crushed in our luggage.  And of course, we stopped by the flagship Starbucks store, though we didn’t go in because the place looked like Arkham Asylum on a good day.  There is so much to see at the market, and luckily their website has a complete list of shops and a map: http://pikeplacemarket.org/.

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A few of Honorable Mentions:

Etta’s – We had a great meal here, right in Pike Place Market, and there was pie!  If you’d like to learn more: Etta’s Restaurant.

Anthony’s Bell Street Diner – We had a great meal here, too, and it’s right on the water.  Their website, if you’re inclined to check it out: Anthony’s Bell Street Diner.

The Pike Brewing Company – This place is on Post Alley.  We stumbled across it on our way to the Gum Wall and decided to stop in.  Great beer and a fun atmosphere!  Here’s the website, if you’re a beer-drinker: The Pike.

So, there you have it.  My favorite Seattle experiences.  This list was not easy to put together, because there’s a lot to see and a lot to do and I actually feel like a return trip would be completely justified.  But, there’s lots of world to see, and honestly, that’s kind of a great exciting unknown, too!

Maybe we’ll meet again, Seattle.  Until that day, you’ll be in my heart.

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**Stay tuned for The Last Frontier: A Virginia Writer Goes West, Part II.  Coming next week!**