In a Dream: Estonia

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It’s funny how, when you’ve traveled a good bit, details of certain trips fade but you can still remember precisely how the air smelled or how a place looked in the light there. The memories become fuzzy and patchy—dreamlike. Sunlight and shadows are what I remember most from a trip to Estonia I took several years ago with the tour operator Travcoa. It was a whirlwind summer with lots of long-haul travel, and this trip came right on the heels of another I’d taken to Peru, during which I landed the mother of all intestinal bugs (it lasted eight weeks to the day!). In the 10 days between those trips I underwent a litany of tests and was loaded up with antibiotics, whose side effects were unlike anything I’d ever experienced. They made me feel angry, depressed, frantic, and in a constant fog. It was a miserable way to experience a country as beautiful as Estonia. So many specifics of my visit—names of restaurants I ate at, museums I visited, towns we drove through—are a blur, so I’m grateful to have these photos to remind me of Tallinn’s clear skies, beautiful rooftops and steeples, and soft sunlight. I don’t remember much, but one thing’s for sure—Estonia is a dream, whether you’re heavily medicated or not.

hotel6I loved my hotel room from the second I set foot in it. So cozy, and with the most beautiful, romantic light.hotel5hotel4hotel3hotel2 hotelThe stone streets of Tallinn are lined with colorful Baroque and Rococo buildings and old Gothic structures. It seemed like the steeples-to-people ratio was quite high. Fine by me. Like everything else in this Baltic city, they’re breathtaking.

colorful buildingstowntown2stairssidewalksshadowswindowwalkingCathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin peeking out from behind some buildings…town10…and Niguliste Museum (St. Nicholas’s Church) peeking out from behind an old stone wall.
town9town8town7town6town5town4town3church1Have you ever seen a building as magnificent as the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (I know, I know, but I’ve yet to see St. Basil’s in person…)? The photo below remains one of my favorites I’ve ever taken.

cathedral and rowhousesbuildingbelltowerarcheryThere’s always time for a little archery competition, especially when the winner takes home the Best Estonian Alcohol!archery2view3St. Olaf’s Church towers above medieval old town Tallinn, a UNESCO World Heritage site. view2viewtowers in a rowOur tour also took us to Latvia (it went to Lithuania, too, but my unrelenting Peruvian Montezuma’s Revenge and antibiotics cocktail got the best of me and I threw in the towel, heading home from Riga without every laying eyes on Lithuania), and on the drive south through Estonia we stopped in the adorable coastal town of Parnu for lunch and a walk, even a quick trip to the beach.  outdoor restaurantbeachbeachgoers

Life’s a beach in Estonia!

Speechless in Seattle

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The end of any year always makes me nostalgic, leading me to look back at photos I took that year and in previous years. Inevitably, I linger longest over my travel photos, which is what I was doing when I discovered a batch of shots from a trip to Seattle I took early last year. Then, I realized I never posted about it. So, here it is! Better (way) late than never, right?

I met up with my mom for three jam-packed days spent exploring Seattle under crystal-clear skies. We stayed at The Edgewater, we visited the Space NeedleChihuly Garden and Glass, and Pike Place Market, and we took a boat tour of Lake Union and a ferry ride to Bainbridge Island. We also strolled around Fremont, where we had The Best Lunch Ever at a cool spot called The Whale Wins. I wasn’t sure what to expect for my visit to Seattle, other than gray skies and rain. It was a happy surprise when the weather turned out to be perfect, and the surprises just kept on coming, from its architecture to its number of offerings. Seattle is one cool city.

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From our room at The Edgewater, we had a sweeping view of Elliott Bay and the waterfront.photo (29)

The Edgewater is famous for The Beatles having been photographed fishing from their own room there during their first world tour in 1964. We got to take a peek inside that suite, which pays tribute to the band to this day with photographs and plenty of Union Jacks.

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Yeah, yeah, the Space Needle’s a huge tourist trap, and some people will laugh when you tell them you went to it, but the views from atop it are astounding. My advice: Forget about your fear of looking like a tourist (which you are) and make the trip. If nothing else, it’s a great way to get the lay of the land.

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I’m a big fan of Dale Chihuly’s glass art, so I couldn’t pass up a visit to Chihuly Garden and Glass, which lies at the foot of the Space Needle. It’s a wonderland of whimsical colored sculptures.

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After our visit to the Space Needle, we made our way across town to join an Underground Tour. On our way, we passed this guy, outside the Seattle Art Museum. (Sadly, we didn’t have time to go inside.)photo (35)

Another attraction I highly recommend, Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour takes patrons through Seattle’s old underbelly. The guides’ scripts are informative, but also funny, providing a dose of dark humor and insight into a tumultuous period in Seattle’s past.

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You can’t go to Seattle without stopping at Pike Place Market, and we kicked off our morning there with a dynamite breakfast at The Crumpet Shop. I’m telling you, there’s some serious eating to be done in this city. Stuffed from our incredible breakfast, we made our way through the market, stopping just minutes later to buy a bag of piping-hot fresh mini-donuts coated in cinnamon and powdered sugar. If it hadn’t been 9 o’clock in the morning, I’m sure we would’ve washed that down with some lobster or crab salad from one of the neighboring stalls. Alas, self-control is everything. (Those are crumpets, by the way: The one on the left is piled high with fresh tomatoes, English cheese, and pesto, and the one on the right is loaded up with smoked-salmon cream cheese and eggs.)

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The original Pike Place Market Starbucks, whose menu is refreshingly limited. A sweet old busker out front learned I was visiting from Boston (where, days earlier, a pair of bombs had gone off at the marathon finish line), so he sang “Sweet Caroline” in its honor.

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Later in the day, we boarded a ferry to Bainbridge Island, watching Seattle’s waterfront shrink into the distance.

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The island’s main street is lined with cute shops and cafes, but the only photos I managed to snap were inside Blackbird Bakery, where we found homemade pies, tarts, and a massive piece of fluffy coconut cake.

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Back on the mainland, we explored Fremont, where we sat down for lunch at The Whale Wins. So fresh. So good. Ridiculously good. Like eating fruits and veggies straight out of an enchanted garden.

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After lunch, we walked around Lake Union, whose houseboats I couldn’t get enough of. Like just about everything else we saw in Seattle, there was something just a little bit magical about them.

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Have you been to this beautiful city? What are your favorite things to see and do there?

And stay tuned for more travel memories: In addition to my Seattle shots, I also unearthed photos from trips to the Galapagos, Estonia, Latvia, and two of my favorite resorts in the British Virgin Islands.

Happy travels!

A Travel Warning’s In Effect: What Now?

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A blissful moment from my first visit to Mexico: whale-watching near The Arch in Cabo San Lucas

Earlier this year, my now-husband and I decided to postpone a real honeymoon when midyear we moved to a new state and I started a new job. We promised ourselves that we would take one in 2015 and, determined to not fail ourselves, we booked one. In Mexico. At a property that I began dreaming of visiting in the summer of 2001 as an intern at a New York City travel magazine. I was on cloud nine when the reservation confirmation hit my inbox.

But just a few days ago, we learned that several states in Mexico are included on a list of travel warnings and alerts issued by the U.S. Department of State. And sure enough, Guerrero, where we’re headed, is described as one of the country’s most dangerous. (The warning does say that non-essential travel to Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo, where our hotel is, need not be deferred. That should make us feel better, right?) Sure, we’ve heard and seen the news about danger along the U.S.-Mexico border and about violence deeper in, but looking for these sweet little resort towns on a list of places too dangerous to visit never crossed my mind.

So here we are, less than two months away from our departure date, flights booked, room confirmed, and unsure what we want to (and can) do. Our inclination is to stick to our plan, behaving as the warning says: Exercise caution, and stay within resort areas. We’ve tossed around a few alternative destinations, but we’re not quite ready to act.

Have you ever faced a travel warning after planning a vacation? Did you forge ahead with your plan or start from scratch? How did you decide?

To be continued…

DreamJobbing, Continued: On to Round 2!

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A couple of weeks ago I posted (read: pleaded) about an amazing opportunity to work with elephants in Thailand courtesy of an organization called DreamJobbing. Well, I’m thrilled to report that I made it to round two! Round two starts today and only lasts for 14 days, so I’m asking anyone with a passion for travel, people, animal welfare, and do-gooding to help me get there by casting votes here. To vote, you must create an account at DreamJobbing.com. Once you do, you can vote every day.

I’ve been so lucky over the last 10 years to have the proverbial red carpet rolled out for me in some of the world’s most breathtaking and exciting destinations, from Las Vegas and Reykjavik to Nairobi and Quito, and so many places in between. And while the five-star hotels, meals, and experiences have been the stuff of dreams, seldom do I leave a destination with the feeling that I’m returning home having left a positive, impactful footprint in my wake. Travel has given so much richness to my life, and now I want to give back.

In the mean time, here are some of my favorite elephant snaps from a trip to Kenya I took with Micato Safaris a few years back. In addition to going on traditional safaris, we also paid a visit to the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a haven for orphaned and injured elephants. As you can imagine, those sweet baby pachyderms are enough to melt your heart. As for the big ones? Well, they’re just plain awesome.

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Thank you all for voting!

Weekend Getaway: New Orleans (Part 1)

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Last weekend my Mr. and I packed our overnight bags and made the five-hour drive from B’ham to New Orleans for a 24-hour escape. It was my first visit to the Big Easy, and one thing I learned before we even pulled out of our parking lot is that everyone has something to say about how to spend your time there. With only a day in town, we knew we had to edit our itinerary carefully, and we did. Here’s how we spent our 24 hours.

We set our GPS for Mother’s, where we kicked things off with a massive grilled-shrimp po’boy, fries, and jambalaya. (The line was short when we arrived, so we were inside and ordering before we knew it. It was a different story by the time we left.)

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From there we headed to the newly renovated Q&C Hotel/Bar, where I scored a 12th-floor room at a pretty good rate on TravelZoo. The hotel is situated between the French Quarter and the Warehouse/Arts District, within easy walking distance of whatever your heart desires. Inside, the Q&C is a stylish space with exposed brick and bare lightbulbs, wood floors and ornate wallpaper, tufted leather headboards and subway-tiled bathrooms. One of the hotel’s two elevators was out of service when we arrived, but it was working again when we made our way out into the city a short while later. Too, our a/c, slow to kick on, sounded like a helicopter hovering overhead when it finally did, but neither of those issues was enough to lessen how much I liked the place. (Did I mention it offers valet parking? What broken elevator?)

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The hotel’s wallpaper pays homage to its namesake, the Queen & Crescent railroad system, which connected Cincinnati (the Queen City) with New Orleans (the Crescent City) and Shreveport.P1000313 P1000316 P1000317 P1000320 P1000459 P1000461 P1000466

Free of our luggage and ready to roll, we set out for the French Quarter, where we were treated to a full-spectrum freak show and scenes of R-rated revelry. The fearless leader of the pack arrived in the form of a pudgy 40-something woman cutting coolly through the Bourbon Street crowd, her dark button-down shirt fully undone and flapping in the breeze, revealing a plane of total nakedness from the waist up covered in shiny silver paint. (You’ll have to use your imagination here; I was afraid to take any pictures.)

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As you might expect, beads are everywhere in NOLA.

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Having loved A Confederacy of Dunces, we both laughed after spotting this hot dog cart. All that was missing was Ignatius.

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Then it was on to Jackson Square, packed with artists, tourists, and vagrants—and spectators clinging to an iron fence trying to glimpse a bride and groom on the other side. P1000356P1000402P1000401P1000400P1000399P1000396P1000364P1000362P1000360P1000358P1000357

With our eyes on the prize, we crossed the square to Café du Monde for those famous beignets and coffee. (Mind. Blown.)

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The forecast before we left called for rain (it never came), so to hide from it we’d planned to spend the afternoon at The National World War II Museum. With its modern architecture, huge collection of artifacts, and interactive experiences, the museum really is a must on a visit to New Orleans. A showing of Beyond All Boundaries and a ticket to Final Mission: The USS Tang Experience are certainly worth the $5-apiece admission cost.

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After the museum we cabbed it back to the French Quarter for dinner at Sylvain, a serene and cozy space despite its location on the front lines. We shared a shaved Brussels sprout salad and roasted butternut squash bruschetta before diving into our own entrees, which came pretty close to perfection (Gulf mahi for me; braised beef cheeks for him). For those excited by celebrities (I say I’m not until a sighting actually happens): Kate Mara (a.k.a. Zoe Barnes!) and Shia LaBeouf briefly took a table behind ours, eventually moving out into the restaurant’s courtyard. I took no pictures at Sylvain, lest my husband die of embarrassment.

After dinner, we turned the corner and posted up in line at Preservation Hall, easily the highlight of our quick trip. We squeezed into the standing-room-only space in the back of the room, and the Southern Syncopators promptly set the soles of our feet on fire. (Cameras weren’t allowed during the show, but you can take a look and a listen here. Also, how romantic is that swing dancing?!)

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We made our way back to the Q&C through more crazy crowds…

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…which were parted for a few minutes by a second line, a traditional New Orleans wedding parade. What a fun way to usher in married life!

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Back at our hotel after a whirlwind day, we fell into bed happy that not a single second had gone to waste.

 

Have you been to New Orleans? What are your favorite spots?

 

 

DreamJobbing

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Today’s my birthday, and to celebrate and kick off this next year I decided to step outside my comfort zone a bit. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a nut for travel and that I’ve done it a good bit for work over the last 10 or so years. (I’ve been lucky to go to places like South Africa, Kenya, The Galapagos Islands, Iceland, Peru, Palau, and many places in Europe and the Caribbean.) Too, then, if you know me, you also know that competition scares me and that I hate few things more than having my picture (or video) taken. But sometimes you have to take a chance to get what you want, and there was no better day to do that than today, as I start my 35th year. Here’s how.

A few weeks ago I stumbled onto a site called DreamJobbing, which offers competitors a chance at, well, dream jobs in various industries. Mine? Going to Thailand for two weeks to care for elephants. To get it? Competitors have to submit—gasp!—a video audition. I lost two weeks of voting time thanks to my fear of making that minute-long video (and the thought of people actually watching it), but I decided this morning that the opportunity was too good to pass up. So, at 5:30 this morning, makeup-free and unscripted, I made my little video and clicked “Submit.” You can watch it—and vote—here (that’s me in the turtle shell).

There are only 12 days left in the voting process so I might be too late to the game to be a real contender, but somehow, just making that video and putting it out there for everyone to see feels strangely liberating. Winning that experience would certainly be sweet, but for now I’ll take satisfaction from knowing that I started a fresh, new year with a little adventure of my own.

Thanks for voting, if you do!

Chili Weather

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Fall has been slow to stick here in the South, but this time of year pretty much demands the occasional pot of hearty, homemade soup regardless of where you live or what it’s doing outside. Over the last few years, I’ve turned into somewhat of a one-trick pony where soup is concerned, always pulling out my favorite black bean recipe. To switch things up a bit, this afternoon I did a quick search for vegetarian chili. One of the first options to come up was a recipe by Emeril Lagasse that averaged five stars after nearly 300 user reviews. I’m not typically a big Emeril fan (for no particular reason), but between the rave reviews and the ingredient list—it’s packed with beans, portobellos, tomatoes, corn, and zucchini—I picked it. And, as public opinion predicted, it was delicious. The recipe suggests serving it over brown rice, but that seemed heavier than what we were in the mood for, so we opted for a side of oven-baked sweet potato fries instead. I’m sure it would be just as tasty spooned over a baked whole sweet potato or rolled up inside a whole-grain tortilla with a fried egg and diced avocado. However you eat it, wash it down with a cold, crisp hard cider for the full fall effect.

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Hello, Dalai!

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This week and weekend, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been in Birmingham to attend a symposium at the University of Alabama Birmingham on Neuroplasticity and Healing. Today, he’ll talk to the public in two events at Regions Field (one in conjunction with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. Gah!). Tickets for today’s events were sold out, but we didn’t totally miss out on the festivities. For the past few days over at Railroad Park, Tibetan monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery have been hard at work creating a mandala in honor of the Dalai Lama’s visit, and we were lucky to swing by while they were still at it. Creating the mandala is a painstaking process—it starts as a sketched outline and gets filled in with individual grains of colored sand—but a peaceful one to watch. This was just one more of an increasing number of discoveries that make us appreciate all that our new hometown has to offer. You can read more about the Dalai Lama’s visit and the creation of the mandala here.

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A Crisp, New(ish) Country Road

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If you know me, you know that I like to shop online. And that I do it often. But something that piqued my interest during a recent session wasn’t a pair of shoes or cute dress (well, not exactly), but what appeared to be a brand’s total makeover. While scrolling through my Pinterest feed, a shift dress (pictured above) with short, fluttery sleeves in a crisp black-and-white stripe stopped me in my tracks. When I saw that Country Road was the Pin’s point of origin, I figured I must be confused. There’s no way it’s that Country Road, I thought. Until then, my only exposure to the Australian brand had been its store at the Carousel Mall in Syracuse, New York. I immediately remembered walking into it as a college student and weaving between racks of neatly hung houndstooth blazers and black trousers. It wasn’t exactly my speed. Fast forward nearly 15 years and the site I had just clicked into was a bright and airy online showroom—almost Scandinavian in its sparseness—filled with clean-lined separates and dresses in crisp, graphic prints, like windowpane plaid, stripes, and the occasional floral. And I wanted everything I saw. But I didn’t want to fork over extra cash for international shipping, so I put it out of my mind. Country Road popped up on my radar again last week, though, when I came across an article on The Cut proclaiming Australian model Gemma Ward to be making her comeback in a beautiful new campaign for—who else?—Country Road (see below). Partnering with the doll-faced model ubiquitous in the early aughts seemed like proof that the brand was for sure kicking its image into a new higher gear. And it turns out it’s true, only the transformation started 10 years ago. I’d say mission: accomplished. As for whether these pieces are as gorgeous in real life as they look online, well, I might have to fork over the funds for shipping and find out.

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1. Mesh Back Tank // 2. Block Stripe Neoprene Skirt // 3. Sheer Solid Dress // 4. Raffia Trim Wrap Dress

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// Women’s Lookbook //

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Did you know about Country Road? What brands’ transformations have you been surprised or delighted by?

Before & After

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Leafing through the pages of a shelter magazine (um, ahem) or scrolling through pictures of dreamy homes on Pinterest, it’s all too easy to take gorgeous interior design for granted. It’s like devouring a plate of delicious food that’s been placed before you: you recognize that it tastes fantastic, but without any understanding of the painstaking process by which it was created—ultimately, what exactly makes it taste that good. That’s why, when it comes to homes, I love a good Before & After story. Sure, the “after” shots show the falling-down-gorgeous results of a renovation, but the “befores” are the key component, providing insight into an interior designer’s gift for seeing a space’s potential when most of us would never even know where to begin. Here are a few of my recent favorites.

Actor’s Upgrade
Dexter star Michael C. Hall hired interior designer Kishani Perera to give a 1920s Spanish-style home (kitchen below; bedroom above) in Los Feliz, California, a hefty and heavenly refresh.

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Mississippi Makeover
A Louisiana couple looking for an escape spent three years renovating a plantation in Fayette, Mississippi, to marvelous results. (The exterior’s transformation will blow your mind! Click below to see.)

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Loft’s New Life
On the Nate Berkus show American Dream Builders, two teams made over a pair of L.A. lofts. The team that worked on this one said its goal was to “combine high style, modern function, and masculine tones.” Mission accomplished! kitch beforekitch afterImages via Elle Decor

A Better Bedroom
HGTV star Emily Henderson recently documented the upgrading of a guest bedroom in her somewhat recently purchased home. There weren’t many (if any?) structural changes, but, wow, is the change amazing! It looks like an entirely different room.

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Do you have any favorite Before & Afters—perhaps from your own home? Share!