Category Archives: Travel

charlestonwv

Travel: An Evening in Charleston, WV

I’m fortunate to have a job that lets me travel. Sometimes that travel is exotic- I’ve been to Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, all for work. Other times the destinations are less exciting, but often turn out to be just as beautiful – Montana and Utah fit the bill there. And sometimes, occasionally, I travel somewhere that my expectations are fairly accurate.

Charleston, West Virginia, turned out to be one of those places. I expected a cute little college town, and that’s pretty much what I got.

I spent two nights there, but as anyone who travels for work will tell you – that gave me approximately 4 hours of exploring. Long enough to eat dinner. Work trips aren’t glamorous, friends. They’re grueling, often 12+ hour days where you’re lucky to see anything besides the inside of a hotel room or conference facility. I wouldn’t trade any of my trips though, because the stories and experiences are worth every bit of stress and exhaustion.

Plus, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, work trips are great ways to scout out places you’d like to return to.

Downtown Charleston, or at least the part I saw, reminds me a little bit of Asheville, actually – the architecture has a similar feel. It’s all cute boutiques and local merchants; you won’t find any chains or big box retailers on Capitol Street. The buildings are all funky colors, the streets are fairly narrow, and the walkways could use a little love and care. But, the drivers are patient, the shops varied, and the vibe incredibly low key. My kind of place.

The Block Restaurant and Wine Cellar

Our first night, we had a lovely dinner at The Block. It’s an upscale restaurant with over 500 different wines. The menu was thankfully manageable, and had a lot of eclectic pairings. If I had to label it, I’d call it Hipster American – think Alfredo pasta that’s got handmade noodles, sauteed kale and Brussels sprouts, and lots of Artisan cheeses.

I had the Braised Short Rib and a local West Virginia Beer (the Almost Heaven Amber Ale from Mountain State Brewing Co.).  According to the menu, my short rib should have had fried leeks (nope), whipped potatoes (yep), sauteed kale (yup, with little pieces of hot dogs?), shallots (nope), and garlic with rosemary demi-glace (possibly, though I didn’t taste any rosemary). It was tasty, but the kale was too bitter and overall, the dish was overpriced. I liked the beer, though.

Service was good, even though the guy had no idea about the beer – he told us Ayinger was brewed in Colorado, and that the Almost Heaven was a wheat beer – but to be fair, it’s a restaurant known for the wine. So I take the fault on that one. And, since we were staying in a hotel, we got a slight discount off our meal. block wv

Pies and Pints

Our second night, we headed over to Pies and Pints, a West Virginia franchise, on the advice of about 500 people. They’re known for their beer selection, but surprisingly, only had a small handful of WV brews. And they wouldn’t do a flight. What self-respecting beer place doesn’t do flights?

I ended up ordering the Wild Wonderful West Virginia Wet Hop Ale from Big Timber Brewing, and a sample of The Loud from Black Sheep Burrito and Brews. While I enjoyed both, I should have done them the other way around. The Wild Wonderful was mild, but the Loud was super hoppy. (I like hoppy beer!)

As for the food, there were three of us, and we were all kinda curious about the Black Bean pizza. Not being one to shy away from a weird food combination, I ordered it. The other two girls had the Heirloom Tomato and the Grape and Gorgonzola pizzas, and we ended up sharing them all.

I was a big fan of mine, and plan to recreate it next time we make pizza, though I might leave off some of the jalapenos. The grape and gorgonzola was only saved by the rosemary – without it, the pizza would have been bland. The heirloom was a little heavy on the pesto, but the tomatoes had great flavor so it balanced out. Overall, I wasn’t crazy about the crust. It might have just been overdone, but to me there’s a fine balance between a good thin crust and a bad one, and it all depends on the level of chewiness. Pies and Pints had a crunchy crust, and I ended up not eating most of it.

piesandpints

Ellen’s Ice Cream

Never ones to pass up ice cream and coffee, we headed across the street to Ellen’s Ice Cream after Pies and Pints. There we sampled a handful of the ice cream flavors, settling on mocha almond, pumpkin, and oreo espresso. Mine was the oreo, and even though I couldn’t eat much of it, the flavor was divine and left me wishing I could buy pints of the stuff.

ellensicecream

Taylor Books

Our final stop on our quick Charleston tour was Taylor Books. An independent book store, that also has an impressive coffee shop and art gallery, I could have spent hours in there. As it was, I practically had to be dragged out….but not before snapping a dozen photos, lamenting the fact that beer couldn’t be ordered to go, and buying a book just because.

taylorbooks

I’d have liked to have more time in Charleston to explore beyond Capitol Street. Have you ever been? What are some of your favorite spots for an evening in Charleston?

Travel: My Favorite Moments from Hideaway at Royalton Riviera Cancun

I thought long and hard about this post. We were just at the Hideaway at Royalton Riviera Cancun in February, and I did two lengthy posts about the resort and the food after that trip. Thinking about how to write about our second trip, I was at a loss for quite some time. I didn’t want to just repeat myself; after all, you guys are smart enough to know that if we go back to a resort a second time, it’s a pretty awesome place. And we didn’t do any excursions, so there wasn’t much new to write about in terms of Mexico itself.

That’s why it’s taken me so long to get a post up, honestly.

And then I realized, I didn’t have to wow you with details about the trip, because really? Who cares? I mean, yes, I know some of you do enjoy knowing every single thing we did (and ate). And most of the time, I’m all for sharing that. But while we had a lovely time on this trip, and we did do a few things differently, by and large if you read my first two posts on the resort, you’ll get the gist of it.

Instead, I thought I’d share some of my favorite moments from the trip. We enjoyed ourselves, and our friends did too. We love Royalton, and we love Mexico, but to be honest I think I’m ready for a different kind of trip. This makes 5 all-inclusives in a row; it’s time for a new kind of adventure. (Remind me of that in 6 months when I’m desperate to go to the beach again).

sushi royalton

You might have guessed this was coming if you read my post about the food, and how in love I was with Zen. I’m happy to report, the love affair continues. And yes, I had the Pad Thai again. It was delicious, but the real star of the show was the sushi smorgasbord. We asked our waiter if there was a sampler, and he and the chef made us this absolutely stunning display of every single sushi item on the menu. It was incredible, and we all ate way too much.

sunrise royalton

The first morning we were there, I woke up super early. I’d planned to do yoga, but forgot about the time change. As a result, I got to see the sun rise over the ocean. It was breathtaking, and pictures could never do it justice.

Coffee and gelato for days, friends. DAYS. Flaming coffee, espresso, Americano, latte…I had so much coffee. And so much gelato. I enjoyed the cookies and cream, and Jimmie liked the pistachio. The coffee shop also had pastries, and I discovered an intense love for Pain Au Chocolate (chocolate-stuffed croissants essentially). I kinda miss having easy access to both espresso and gelato. My waistline does not share that feeling.

We didn’t end up buying anything – I wanted a chip and dip set, but no luck – but it was fun to do a little shopping without having to leave the resort. The wares were about what you’d expect, but I can’t comment on prices because we didn’t see anything we wanted badly enough to stop. The lights were gorgeous, and I spent more time photographing it than I did browsing.

beach royaltonTrying, and failing, to paddleboard in the ocean. Not the same as doing it on the lake. And then I got mad, and pitched a tantrum and refused to try it again. And then Jimmie and I kayaked, and that went about as well as it ever does when someone has to paddle a boat with me. BUT. The beach was lovely, and we spent so much time there, and I’m so glad for that. We dug up shells and coral, we read, we walked, we swam, and we just soaked up the salt air. In the past we’ve spent more time at the pool – this trip, it was all beach. Sure, it may not be the prettiest beach we’ve been to (I’m looking at you, Catalonia), but the atmosphere was perfect. It was quiet, peaceful, and not at all crowded.

We didn’t find out until our last day there, and by then it was too late, that we could have booked a snorkeling excursion right from the beach. Next time.

new restaurants royaltonThere are 9 restaurants available to Hideaway guests. Before we left, Jimmie suggested we try to eat at all of them, meaning we’d have to do second dinner a couple of times. We didn’t make it, but we did prioritize the ones we hadn’t yet tried. Armadillo was Tex Mex, and while good, wasn’t one I’d repeat. Opa was Mediterranean, and a front-runner for my favorite restaurant at the resort. Everything was cooked well, it wasn’t crowded, and the ambiance was really unique. (I ordered tagine, and am going to try it at home soon.) Agave was Mexican, and everything I hoped it would be. I was able to order all the tacos in a mixed taco trio. If we go back, I’ll definitely be cycling between Agave, Zen, and Opa the entire trip!

royalton parties

During the Foam Party, which was held in the Hideaway pool after dinner, our friends brought mountains of foam back to the swimup pool. And at the White Party, I snapped this adorable photo of a little boy mesmerized by the stilt walker…and then shared the photo with his father. His father, who was Greek, and spoke very little English, while I spoke absolutely no Greek. Jimmie has a photo series of us working it out, and it’s amusing. Google truly is the universal language – all I had to do was show him the email button, and he now has the photo. The world is a beautiful place.

new favoritesMudslides. Mudslides. And more mudslides. I don’t usually like them, because they’re way too sweet, but the Royalton bartenders make a mean mudslide. I drank a LOT of them this trip. And those wings were Jerk flavored, and ohmygosh good. For anyone considering a trip, the wings in the sports bar are not the same – you need to go to the Caribbean restaurant and order like 4 of them.

As for the Indio, well…it’s a Mexican beer, so that was fun, but not really my style.

royalton spaI wanted to try the spa on our last trip, but didn’t get around to it. This time, I made sure I didn’t miss it. I dragged Jimmie along with me – we had a couples massage – and it was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life. The massage was fine, but you get an hour of hydrotherapy beforehand. At Royalton, they rush you through each station, and it’s not at all relaxing. It’s like there’s a train to catch or something. It was so ridiculous that at one point we just burst out laughing. I’m glad we did it, and it was fun, if only because it was so strange. I can mark that one off my list, and for those of you taken in by Royalton’s spa pictures like I was – it’s not even close.

And finally….

I mean, he’s ok. *Grin*

Travel: Flying Saucer in Nashville, TN

Ready for the last post about our recent trip to Nashville? First, we had Sammy B’s, then we had Crawdaddy’s. After that it was Mantra Artisan Ales. And rounding out the Nashville posts, I bring you…Flying Saucer.

We also saw a concert while we were in Nashville, but it wasn’t all that exciting. It was One Republic, their third show of the tour. We were there to see Fitz and the Tantrums, who either pulled out of the tour or were never supposed to be on it in the first place….even though I’m 99.99% positive they were listed when I bought the tickets. I’m still bitter about it.

Moving on. Here’s photo proof that we did do something besides eat. And drink.

Nashville Flying Saucer

One of our friends recommended we stop in Flying Saucer while we were in Nashville (he knows us well). Since the concert was over at 10:00pm and neither of us was tired, we made the stop! It turned out well, since we were also both hungry. (We’d grabbed a quick Aldi chicken salad dinner in between Mantra and the concert. While yummy, it didn’t have much staying power!)

We parked in the lot behind the building, and I snapped a few photos of the back side of Union Station Hotel . The light hitting it was breathtaking. I didn’t actually know what the building was when I took the picture – just that it was beautiful!

The back of Nashville’s Union Station Hotel

The inside of the Flying Saucer is a beer lover’s dream, with dark wood, lots of saucers (more on that in a moment), and a tap wall that made me swoon.

Inside the Nashville Flying Saucer

Closeup of the Tap Wall at the Nashville Flying Saucer

The Beer

I’d never been to a Flying Saucer. Jimmie had, and I guess they’re all fairly similar. Tons and tons and tons of beer. 200 beers, to be exact. There’s so much beer that it gets its own double-sided menu.

  Beer menu at Nashville Flying Saucer

If you’re a hardcore beer fan, you can join their UFO club and they’ll track your progress. Once you’ve had all the beers, you get a fun reward – your very own saucer on the wall. If you make the rounds more than once, you get a fancier saucer. We saw some that said people had done all 200 beers….9 times. Impressive.

UFO Club Saucers at the Nashville Flying Saucer

UFO Club Saucers at the Nashville Flying Saucer

We ordered a Ghost Flight, which is 4 unknown beers. You rate them on the restuarant’s website, and then whichever beer ends up getting the highest rating gets added to the taps. We weren’t super impressed with any of them. We knew we had a Mexican style lager, and one of the others was a honey pale ale, but the third was pretty unremarkable. (They ran out of the 4th ghost beer, so gave us more gose.) Regardless, it was a fun experience, and yes, we did rate our beers! Our second flight had a Scotch ale, a Gose, and two IPAs. The Anderson Valley Gose was our favorite.

Ghost flight at the Nashville Flying Saucer

Ghost flight at the Nashville Flying Saucer

The Food

The menu at the Flying Saucer has about a million delicious-sounding things on it, all of them designed to pair extremely well with beer. Pretzels, brats, cheese…I wanted all of it.

Eventually we settled on a pepperoni and mushroom pizza and the Saucer Bratzel, which is a pretzel topped with cheese and beer brats. The pretzel was definitely the star of the show. The pizza wasn’t terrible either, but don’t go for the pizza. Go for the pretzel.

Pizza, beer, and saucer bratzel at Nashville's Flying Saucer

Pizza, beer, and saucer bratzel at Nashville’s Flying Saucer

I’m sorry I don’t have a picture of just the pretzel because you really should see that in all its glory. Guess you’ll just have to take a trip and try it yourself!

That wraps up our two-day Nashville trip – hard to believe we ate so much in two days, huh?! I’m sure we’ll be back that way soon, so where else should we try?

Travel: Mantra Artisan Ales in Franklin, TN

If you’ve been here a while, you know I’m a big beer fan. If you’re new (welcome, friend!), I write about beer a lot – some of these posts are really old, though, so be gentle. Check out our trips to Yazoo, Jackalope, Asheville, Asheville again, and Asheville a third time. Better yet, search my page for “Beer” (there’s even a tag at the bottom of this post), and enjoy.

Anyway, surprise! Here’s another brewery post!

A few months ago I discovered Mantra Artisan Ales when I had their Guru Gish at a book club meeting. It tasted like a Reese’s cup in a pint glass. I immediately decided I was in love with Mantra. I tried their Saffron IPA at a local beer garden, and from that moment on, knew it was just a matter of time before I’d make it to the taproom. So, when we traveled to Nashville recently and found ourselves with a few extra hours before our concert, we made the 30ish minute drive south to Franklin to check it out.

Mantra Artisan Ales

Mantra Artisan Ales is in perhaps the most unassuming location I’ve ever seen. It’s a business park. And then there’s this little brewery.

Outside Mantra Artisan Ales in Franklin, TN

We weren’t really expecting much on that first glance, but as soon as we walked inside we realized you should never judge a taproom by its location.

The Taproom at Mantra

They’ve got all their beers (all 20-something of them) listed on televisions above the bar. It made for terrible photos, sorry.

Tap Wall at Mantra

I loved everything about the taproom, from the tap handles to the bathroom mural.

Mural at Mantra Brewing

And yes, they have lots of t-shirts with that fantastic Mantra logo. They’re super soft and I bought a tank top.

Merchandise at Mantra

The Beer

We didn’t know before we got there, but Mantra is known for their sours. Roughly half of their taps were sour beers when we visited. I’m not a huge sour fan, but Jimmie is. We started with two flights, one each.

Jimmie had the Cherry Love (sour red), Tacenda (sour), Cassis (sour red), and ReinCOWnation (milk stout). Cherry Love was my least favorite – it tasted like medicine. Cassis was reminiscent of wine, so I enjoyed that one. ReinCOWnation was yummy, and Tacenda was very heavy on the muscadine.

I had Annika (wild ale), Chocolate Wit, Randall (IPA), and Roots (IPA). Annika was one of our favorites. I was really disappointed I couldn’t taste the carrots in the Roots IPA. Randall was ok, and the chocolate wit wasn’t my thing.

For our third flight we had Imli (sour), Noueveau (Belgian Dubbel), La Tian (peppercorn saison), and Big Juicy Dank (IPA). I liked La Tian, and Jimmie liked Imli. We were three flights in, so I forgot to take a picture until after we’d finished.

Tasting all the beers at Mantra

We really enjoyed our afternoon tasting at Mantra. We sat in the taproom and played Valley of the Kings, a fun little card game, and drank beer after beer. They know their beer at Mantra…even the ones I wasn’t crazy about, I could tell they were done well. And the atmosphere was perfect, laid back and friendly. I’d go back in a heartbeat.

What other breweries do you know and love? I’m always on the hunt for a good one, so let’s hear your recommendations!

Sneak Peak: Hideaway at Royalton Riviera Cancun (2nd Trip!)

What can I say? We loved the Hideaway at Royalton Riviera Cancun so much we just had to go back.

We actually planned to do a Mountain trip this summer, since we were in Mexico in February. But when I started looking at prices, we realized we could do a return Royalton trip for about $200 more. Tough decision, no?

So we’re off this week to sunny Mexico for our second trip to the most luxurious resort ever. Or maybe not ever, but that we’ve been to. I’ve got lots of ideas planned for this trip, including a list of “Drinks to Order at an All-Inclusive Resort,” so feel free to throw out some ideas for me. Just make them quick, since I’ll only have a few days to snap relevant pictures!

In the meantime, check out my first review of Royalton Riviera Cancun, my comparison of two of the Mexico resorts we’ve been to (I’m still slacking on the updated comparison!), and the best part, all the foooood. I’m making a beeline for that Pad Thai when we get there. Seriously, my priorities are to take pictures of everything I drink, eat all the Pad Thai I can stomach, and order room service every single night.

I’d thought about leaving the resort for once, but….nah. I like reading and relaxing too much. Speaking of reading, later this week I’ll share what’s in my beach bag. If you want you can place bets on what I’ll actually read.

We’re going with friends for the first time since 2014, so that’ll be a fun and slightly different experience! We booked a swim-up room again, and our fingers are crossed it’s the same one we had last time. I’m looking forward to seeing if Karina is still serving drinks in Hideaway!

As for drinks, any suggestions?

Travel: DelMonaco Winery & Vineyards in Baxter, TN

All the best people were born in July.

I can say that, since both Jimmie and I are July babies. We also happen to have a dozen or so friends who were also born in July. It’s a good month for a birthday.

A few weeks ago, a couple of our July-birthday friends invited us to take a wine tour for a joint birthday celebration. Turns out there’s a wine trail not too far from us (two, actually), so we loaded up the car and headed west to DelMonaco Winery and Vineyards in Baxter, TN.

We had a great day with friends new and old!

For those not familiar with the area, Baxter is one exit past Cookeville on the way to Nashville. Remember Cookeville from my Crawdaddy’s post? Anyway, I’m not sure there’s much in Baxter, though apparently there is a really good restaurant that we didn’t get to. Next time. (For those interested, DelMonaco is part of the Upper Cumberland Wine Trail.)

DelMonaco Winery & Vineyards

DelMonaco is one of the few wineries in Tennessee that grows their own grapes. In addition to the wine, they’ve also got an incredible event space. It’s genius, really, since as our tour guide told us, they make just as much money from their events as they do from their wine. If you live in Middle or East Tennessee and need a wedding venue, definitely check them out.

We paid $15 each for the tour and tasting, which got us a 45 minute tour and samples of all 14 wines. Yes, that’s a lot of wine. Most of DelMonaco’s wines are sweet wines, typical for the area. I learned that for the most part, the grapes we’re familiar with (Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, etc.) don’t survive in the U.S. Only the West Coast and a few places in New England have any real luck with them. Bad soil, pests, fungi, and inhospitable climates cause problems everywhere else.

But, that just means American winemakers have had to get creative. Some wineries purchase those more elusive grapes. Others grow America-friendly grapes like Muscadine and Concord. Still others make wines out of fruits, such as strawberries, blackberries, and peaches.

Needless to say, this wine drinker learned a lot on the tour.

The Tour

First of all, it was hot as blazes. Our tour guide took us through the venue first, showing us their different event spaces. I loved the Grand Bella, the main room. It’s got these gorgeous glass doors all around. You’ll have to take my word for it, since I failed to turn around and take a picture.

The Grand Bella at DelMonaco Winery

The outdoor areas are very nice too, and have killer views of the vineyard.

I absolutely adore this picture of us in front of the vineyards.

Next we walked down to the vineyard, where we learned a little more about the history of the place and some of the fun events they host. There’s a wine train – the train tracks run right by the winery – that brings people in from Nashville. You ride a train (drink wine), tour the winery (drink wine), and have a party (drink wine). It sounds like it might be one of the best things ever.

Concord Grapes at the DelMonaco Winery

We didn’t wander the vineyard (we were all melting), but we did snap lots of photos.

Another good one!

And some of us might have tried the grapes.

I’m thinking about framing this one and hanging it in my kitchen. That’d work, right?

Concord grapes are divine, friends.

Where the magic happens!

After the grapes, we went into the blessedly cool air-conditioned wine-making room (I can’t remember the proper term, sorry). There we got to hear about how they make the wine, how they bottle the wine, how they label the wine, and how they store the wine. All I remember was that it’s very similar to making beer, and that they do only about 4,000 cases of wine a year. I should have taken better notes, but I’ll just go back for the wine train and update you then.

On a side note – I was very disappointed to know that they don’t actually crush grapes in a giant vat with their bare feet. I’ve wanted to do that ever since watching the (albeit terrible) movie, A Walk in the Clouds. Anyone with me??

The Tasting

We actually did the tasting before the tour, since we were waiting on another couple to meet us there. Fourteen wines is a lot, and since you taste from dry to sweet, it quickly becomes A LOT.

DelMonaco Winery Wine Tasting List….side A.

Jimmie and I are dry-wine drinkers, so for the most part, we had a hard time with the wines. We could appreciate the flavors, and there were a few that we would have been able to drink a glass of if we’d needed to. There were a couple that I’d have added carbonation to, and a handful that I simply could not finish my taster of. But, we also liked some – the Chardonnay was quite good, and I typically don’t like Chardonnay. It’s got apricot and fig flavors, and oddly enough, you can actually taste the fig. The Merlot and Noiret were also good, though slightly too fruity.

Don’t let our experience put you off though – our sweet-wine loving friends bought like 8 bottles. They loved the wines.

I took like 8 pictures before I’d let anyone drink it. I’m that person.

After our tasting, we bought a bottle of Chardonnay and took it to the patio for a picnic lunch of cheeses, fruits, veggies, and meats. It was a wonderful meal, despite the heat, and the wine paired perfectly with the food.

Our glorious picnic

It was a fun-filled (HOT) day, and despite not loving all the sweet wines, wine is wine, so we left happy. It’s nice to know we have such a beautiful, relaxing place here in Tennessee, and I can see myself going back with a group of girlfriends to spend some lazy Saturday.

I believe you can order DelMonaco’s wines from their website, or if you’re local, it’s a quick day trip. And if anyone does that train, I want to tag along.

Travel: Crawdaddy’s Restaurant in Cookeville, TN

Last week, I shared our lunch date at Sammy B’s in Lebanon, TN, on our way home from Nashville. The type A personalities will be annoyed to know that we also had lunch on the way to Nashville – but I wrote the posts out of order, so you’re just now seeing it. *Grin*

The drive from Knoxville to Nashville doesn’t have a whole lot of large towns with food choices that aren’t chain restaurants, but so far, we’ve managed. On the drive out, we stopped in Cookeville with the intention of eating at The Cooke House. We’d tried to make it there on a previous trip, but the restaurant was closed for a private event. Wouldn’t you know – it was closed this trip too.

Cookeville is roughly halfway between Knoxville and Nashville, and it’s probably the biggest city you’ll pass on the drive. It’s home to Tennessee Technological University, and has an adorable downtown area. Since the Cooke House was closed, we turned to Crawdaddy’s.

Crawdaddy’s West Side Grill

Crawdaddy’s is a Creole-American restaurant in Downtown Cookeville. It’s housed in a 100-year-old building with a spacious patio.

Crawdaddy's Entrance Cookeville

Entrance to Crawdaddy’s in Cookeville, TN

Crawdaddy's Patio Cookeville

Patio at Crawdaddy’s in Cookeville, TN

In the 1930s and 40s, that patio was home to the Fox Cafe. A fire destroyed the building in the 1960s, and the space stayed vacant until Crawdaddy’s incorporated it into their restaurant.

History Crawdaddy's

History of Crawdaddy’s Patio

Crawdaddy’s prides themselves on being a friendly, welcoming establishment. Our service was adequate, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it exceptional. Staff were courteous, and our food was delivered quickly.

The Food

I wanted everything with goat cheese, but eventually settled on the Mango Mahi Wrap with seasoned fries. Jimmie had the Citrus Glazed Salmon, which came with mashed potatoes and fried green beans.

Mango Mahi Wrap with seasoned fries at Crawdaddy’s

The wrap was stuffed full of grilled mahi mahi. So much so, in fact, that I couldn’t finish it. The mango added a nice flavor. The wrap was your standard wrap, though it ended up getting a little soggy. I’m not sure how that could be avoided unless they grilled it. The fries were good, and reminded me of Arby’s curly fries.

I forgot to get a picture of Jimmie’s salmon. The portion was a little on the small size – 4 ounces, which is great for lunch. Not sure if it’d be enough for dinner. The citrus glaze was reminiscent of an Asian marinade, but the goat cheese threw it off a little. Here’s where I have to admit that goat cheese does not, in fact, go with everything. His mashed potatoes were cold, and the fried green beans were actually roasted. Despite all this, he enjoyed it quite immensely.

Tree at Crawdaddy’s

My favorite thing about Crawdaddy’s was the atmosphere. I loved the patio’s New Orleans vibe. The downside was the number of flies relentlessly attacking our food, but I suppose that happens when you dine al fresco.

I’d like to go back and try more of the menu, but there are a couple other Cookeville restaurants I might try first. But, if you’re a fan of Creole or Cajun food, definitely add Crawdaddy’s to the list of restaurants to consider when making the drive between Knoxville and Nashville!

Travel: Sammy B’s Restaurant in Lebanon, TN

We recently spent the night in Nashville as part of a quick trip to see a concert. The next morning we woke up a little early, but neither of us felt like exploring the city. (We missed our pups!) Rather than waiting around until restaurants in the Nashville area started serving lunch, we decided to hit the road. When we saw the sign for the Lebanon outlet mall, we figured it’d be a good place to stop and grab some lunch. And some shopping, obviously.

Lebanon is about half an hour East of Nashville. I’ve been there once, and that was to pick up the shark puppy last year. I’m pretty sure we ate McDonald’s for dinner that time.

Turns out there are actually quite a few non-chain restaurants in Lebanon. Jimmie wasn’t feeling Mexican or sandwiches, so we ended up at Sammy B’s.

Sammy B’s

SammyB's

Sammy B’s is a casual upscale American restaurant located right next to City Hall in the Castle Heights area of Lebanon. It’s in the former home of the Castle Heights Military Academy’s President. The place has both a patio and an atrium, as well as plenty of room for private events. The food is classic with a twist, and everything is homemade. They even cut their own meat.

sammyb'sentrance

The attention to customer service and detail shows in both the service and the food. While we had a dedicated server, each staff member came by to check on us as they walked by. If they saw we needed a drink refilled, they refilled it. When a server brewed a fresh pot of coffee for another table, she topped mine off. The staff were courteous and friendly, and though it may sound cliche, the place oozed Southern hospitality.

The Food

Both of us had a hard time choosing because the menu is enormous. Our server recommended the Fish and Chips, Lobster Roll, and the Rajin’ Cajun sandwich. I had my eye on the Reuben, and when she said she’d already put in two orders for it that morning, I knew it had to be good. Jimmie chose the Trifecta and Chips, which was fish, shrimp, and chicken (and fries). I chose sweet potato fries for my side; he wanted to sub out the coleslaw on his platter, but that wasn’t an option.

SammyB'sReuben

I’m a sucker for a good Reuben, and this one didn’t disappoint. My biggest complaint with Reubens is usually that there’s too much dressing and not enough sauerkraut. Sammy B’s has the perfect ratio, and their sauerkraut is nice and tangy with a hint of sweetness. The marbled rye was toasted perfectly, the cheese melted just enough, and the corned beef (thankfully) wasn’t too salty. The only thing they could have done differently was slice the corned beef a little thinner. I had to do a lot of chewing, but then again, it just meant I ate more slowly. Not a bad thing.

SammyB'sTrifecta

The Trifecta had the fattest fried shrimp I’ve ever seen, and the strangest looking chicken tenders. Both tasted delicious, with slightly peppered breading. The fish was a little on the thin side, resulting in more batter than fillet, but was still packed with flavor. I stole Jimmie’s coleslaw, and appreciated the subtlety of the dressing – again, not too overpowering, with just the right amount of tang. Clearly, the chef knows how to balance flavors.

After lunch I snapped a couple photos of the Castle Heights Military Academy (now City Hall) because look at that gorgeous building.

Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon, TN

Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon, TN

Next time you’re in the Lebanon or Nashville areas, make sure to stop at Sammy B’s!

How to Choose the Perfect Campsite

choosetheperfectcampsiteWe’re big campers. Until a few years ago, I’d never camped, but after that first trip I was hooked. Our setup has changed considerably since we first started out, but that’s how it works. The more you camp, the more you learn what you need and don’t need, and what you like and don’t like. For us, having a great site is one of the most important things.

Choosing a campsite can be a tough decision. Your campsite is your home away from home, so you want to be sure you’ve got a good one. Experienced campers likely have it down to a science, but for those of you who are new to camping, here are a few things to take into consideration.

Before You Go

If you’re planning a trip, you can use a site like Recreation.gov or ReserveAmerica to pick your campsite ahead of time. Many campgrounds let you reserve anywhere from 3 days to 6 months in advance. Depending on the campground, sometimes you’ll luck out and the sites will have photos. If not, you can often Google the campground name and pull up pictures that people have shared online. Sometimes those will have site numbers.

That’s not always the case, though. For this reason, we always make a loop at every campground we visit. We take pictures, and sometimes videos, of sites we like. If we ever go back, we just pull up our “campsite” album and compare what’s available to the sites we have pictures of. If you’re going to do that, make sure you get the site number in the photo, as well as the whole site.

campsite

This is one of our favorite campsites. Lots of trees, close to the bathhouse, and a great spot for the dogs. (It’s at the Bandy Creek Campground, for those interested!)

How to Choose the Perfect Campsite

So, just how do you choose the perfect campsite? Everyone is different, but here are the things that we look for when we’re picking out a site. These same guidelines apply whether we’re reserving in advance or showing up last minute, though our choices are typically a lot more limited last minute!

How close are the other campsites?

Simply put, we don’t like being on top of another campsite. We look for one with ample space on either side, as well as no direct lines of sight into other sites.

On the other hand, if we’re camping with a group of friends, we look for sites that are close together – either right next to each other, or across from each other.

campsites for groups

We’ve camped in these sites twice with friends. They’re close together, making it easy to hang out in the evenings!

If we can’t find a site that’s relatively private, sometimes we’ll look for sites that are next to people with RVs. Often, the RVs will block a lot of the sight lines into the neighboring campsites, giving everyone a little space. Of course, you never know what your fellow campers will be like – we’ve had great neighbors and not so great neighbors. Sometimes we luck out and have no neighbors, though that’s rare in summer.

How close is the campsite to the playground/gathering area/store? 

In general, we stay far away from all of the above. Playgrounds and gathering areas tend to be noisy and full of children, especially in summer when the campground is at capacity. While it’s nice to be close the store if you run out of provisions, it’s also easy enough to walk (or drive) over.

campsite near playground

In summer, this campsite would have been terrible for us since it was right next to the playground. In March, with the campground empty, it was perfect!

How close is the campsite to the bath house?

We like to be close, but not *too* close to the bathhouse. Typically, we try to get within 5 or 6 sites. Being right next to the bathroom is noisy and often bright. People traipse to the bathhouse at all hours of the day. It’s nice to have a buffer, but I also don’t like having to hike too far in the middle of the night.

campsite near bathhouse

This is another of our favorite campsites. It’s close to the bathhouse (that building on the far right), has plenty of privacy, and plenty of trees.

If your campground doesn’t have a bathhouse, or you can’t get a site close to it, look for one with lots of trees. Which leads me to my next point….

Does the campsite have plenty of trees?

There are two reasons we look for trees – the dogs, and our hammocks. We create ziplines for the dogs, so we need at least three or four good-sized trees relatively close together. We look for sturdy ones that will support the hammocks (and us!) without bending or breaking.

For our hammocks, we need two tree pairs; sometimes these double as dog trees.

trees at campsite

Sorry about the angle – I was in my own hammock! These trees are perfect for dog lines and hammocks both.

Trees also provide shade, fallen branches to be used as kindling, privacy from other sites, and in a pinch, impromptu toilet facilities.

Where is the campsite’s fire ring?

I can’t tell you how many sites we’ve turned down because the fire ring was precisely centered in the back of the site. We have a huge tent, so we need a site where the fire ring is on one side. This wasn’t quite as much of an issue with our smaller tent.

Remember – you can move a picnic table (generally), but you can’t move a fire ring.

fire ring at campsite

Great location for the fire ring – away from the tent!

There you have it – our tips for choosing the perfect campsite. What other things do you look for in the perfect site? Do you have the same criteria we do?

Happy camping!

Travel: Royalton Riviera Cancun Food and Drink

A couple days ago, I told you all about the Royalton Riviera Cancun – well, everything, that is, except the food. Which if we’re honest, is the most important part….AMIRIGHT?

I love food, and while I’m not picky, I certainly appreciate when a resort does food especially well. Yes, I can find something anywhere, but choices are nice to have – and the number (and type) of restaurants definitely factors in when we’re choosing where to stay. Royalton Riviera Cancun has 9 restaurants, plus room service.

I scoped out the menus online as much as I could before we left, and quickly realized there was no possible way I’d be able to eat everything I wanted to in the 5 nights we were there. That said, I did my best, and we hit all but two, so I’m considering that a win.

One thing I want to mention right off the bat – if you read TripAdvisor reviews, you’ll notice that some people share our opinions of each restaurant, and some go the opposite direction. So take these with a grain of salt, and if you’re going to Royalton, try whatever restaurants sound good to you, ok?

Hunter Steakhouse was our least favorite, so I’ll just go ahead and get that one out of the way. No pictures here, because the food was unremarkable. They did have a giant plastic bull outside the restaurant though, so that was cute. Apparently not for sitting on, which is ridiculous – why would you have a life-sized bull if you don’t want people to sit on it? Anyway, we waited for about half an hour to get in here – the only one we had to wait for, and it may have been because we were quite late in getting ready for dinner. We were excited because the menu looked incredible. But as soon as we got inside, our hearts fell…the atmosphere was terrible. It’s a bit like sitting in a tin can with 2500 of your closest friends. It was so loud that we couldn’t carry on a conversation. Our service was meh, and our steaks – ribeye for Jimmie, fillet for me – were overcooked and flavorless. We dined and dashed, and won’t waste a night on it next time we go. The French Onion soup was good, though.

Zen….oh man, Zen. We ate here the second night (it’s Asian food), and I’m STILL dreaming about that meal. I knew from TripAdvisor that I could order a sushi sampler that isn’t on the menu, so that’s what we did.

Sushi Sampler at Zen, Royalton Riviera Cancun

Sushi Sampler at Zen, Royalton Riviera Cancun

We also split the Butaniku Spring Rolls and Jimmie had Miso Soup. For the entrée, he had the Hibachi Grilled Salmon; I had Chicken and Shrimp Pad Thai. We also got the Bussels Sprouts and Lobster Mashed Potatoes, which were both fine but definitely took a back seat to everything else. Zen was BY FAR our favorite – so much so that we debated about going back a second night, but opted for a new restaurant instead. (I wish we’d gone with Zen.)

Chicken and Shrimp Pad Thai at Zen, Royalton Riviera Cancun

Chicken and Shrimp Pad Thai at Zen, Royalton Riviera Cancun

Dorado is the Hideaway restaurant, and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We didn’t make it in for breakfast because the buffet was so good (more on that in a moment), but we tried both lunch and dinner. For lunch, we ordered from our swim-up – a very cool perk that we didn’t know we could do until our neighbors told us about it. We split cerviche, Jimmie had fish and chips, and I had a fish sandwich. Everything was good, though it wasn’t out-of-this world good. That said, the convenience was definitely worth considering ordering lunch again!

Top to Bottom: Fish Sandwich, Cerviche, Fish and Chips, Dorado (Lunch), Royalton Riviera Cancun

Top to Bottom: Fish Sandwich, Cerviche, Fish and Chips, Dorado (Lunch), Royalton Riviera Cancun

Dinner at Dorado was Ah-mazing. The restaurant has a great view of the ocean, and they had the windows open so we got a nice breeze. Dorado was also the only restaurant that had the “house special” appetizer – it was an oyster. I had the Conch Fritters, the Raw Crab Legs (which were surprising but not really my thing), and the Sea Bass; Jimmie had Fried Calamari and the Ribeye – which was about 10,000 times better than the steak at Hunter. But the best part, for sure, was the dessert cart. Yes, cart. Our waiter brought it over, then laid out all the choices for us to choose from. Thankfully they were all small, so I didn’t feel the slightest bit guilty about choosing three. We had the chocolate covered strawberries (DIVINE), the crème brulee, and some mousse thing that was just ok.

Oyster, Sea Bass, and Dessert at Dorado (Dinner), Royalton Riviera Cancun

Oyster, Sea Bass, and Dessert at Dorado (Dinner), Royalton Riviera Cancun

If you’re not Hideaway, you still have plenty of good options, but if you are…don’t miss Dorado.

Oh, speaking of Hideaway, they do a Chocolate Party one night. It’s basically just an assortment of chocolate concoctions. I’m not generally a fan of the chocolate desserts in Mexico (Royalton is no exception), but they had some truffles at the party that were surprisingly good. I’ll be honest, I expected this to be a bigger thing than it was – I enjoyed it, but don’t let it be your deciding factor about whether or not to book Hideaway.

Chocolate Party, Hideaway at Royalton Riviera Cancun

Chocolate Party, Hideaway at Royalton Riviera Cancun

Opa was really high on my list to try, but tequila happened and so this one sorta fell off the wayside. It’s Mediterranean. I stumbled in for an appetizer, and only had the hummus. It was yummy, but I don’t think I can really give you much on the restaurant. We also didn’t make Armadillo or Agave, the Tex-Mex and Mexican, respectively. We wanted to do Agave, just ran out of time, so next trip for sure.

Grazie is the Italian, and since they’re open for both lunch and dinner, we were able to squeeze it in for lunch one day. It’s your typical Italian fare. Jimmie had Calamari here too, I had Caprese Salad – which was disappointing because the tomatoes weren’t very good. For an entrée, Jimmie ordered an enormous four-cheese pizza that probably had a year’s worth of cheese on it. So so good. I didn’t want something heavy, so I had Pomodoro Pasta with chicken. It was good, nothing special, but just fine. Next trip I’d like to try Grazie for dinner.

Four Cheese Pizza, Pomodoro Pasta with Chicken, and Caprese Salad at Grazie (Lunch), Royalton Riviera Cancun

Four Cheese Pizza, Pomodoro Pasta with Chicken, and Caprese Salad at Grazie (Lunch), Royalton Riviera Cancun

Caribbean Grill was also open for both lunch and dinner, and we did both. Lunch was better than dinner. Dinner was bland and slightly overcooked. For dinner we had lobster and shrimp tacos, fried coconut shrimp, rock lobster tails, and Caribbean salmon. The salmon was the best, hands down.

Salmon, Rock Lobster Tail, Coconut Shrimp, and Caribbean Tacos at Caribbean Grill (Dinner), Royalton Riviera Cancun

Salmon, Rock Lobster Tail, Coconut Shrimp, and Lobster and Shrimp Tacos at Caribbean Grill (Dinner), Royalton Riviera Cancun

Lunch was better – we had more cerviche, guacamole, a cute little salad, chicken fajitas, and shrimp alfredo. I suspect the Dorado lunch menu and Caribbean Grill lunch menu are pretty much the same, so just keep that in mind – we didn’t realize it until afterwards. In terms of future trips, think we’d probably pass on Caribbean in favor of another new one.

Guacamole, Chicken Quesadillas, Cerviche, and Puerto Morales Salad at Caribbean Grill (Lunch), Royalton Riviera Cancun

Guacamole, Chicken Quesadillas, Cerviche, and Puerto Morales Salad at Caribbean Grill (Lunch), Royalton Riviera Cancun

For those of you who party all night, the Score Sports Bar is open until 6am. We only went in to watch the Superbowl, but I was hungry again, so we had wings and poutine. French fries with gravy and cheese? Sign me up. The bowl was huge and every single bite was superb. We didn’t last long most nights, otherwise I’d have eaten there more!

Buffalo Wings and Poutine at Score Sports Bar, Royalton Riviera Cancun

Buffalo Wings and Poutine at Score Sports Bar, Royalton Riviera Cancun

Gourmet Marche is the buffet. It’s open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and it’s HUGE. Seriously, search YouTube for the videos. We had breakfast here every day, and every day had something different.

Breakfast, Gourmet Marche Breakfast Buffet, Royalton Riviera Cancun

Breakfast, Gourmet Marche Breakfast Buffet, Royalton Riviera Cancun

We ate lunch here on the day we arrived, and maybe one other time. We didn’t eat dinner at the buffet, though we did stop in once for dessert. Choices at both lunch and dinner were everything you could possibly want, and I especially liked the authentic Mexican dishes. These tacos were life.

Assorted tacos, Gourmet Marche Lunch Buffet, Royalton Riviera Cancun

Assorted tacos, Gourmet Marche Lunch Buffet, Royalton Riviera Cancun

Lastly, I have to mention the room service, because we took advantage a couple nights. (There’s also a snack bar in the kids pool that serves a similar menu – we did lunch there one beach day.) The room service menu isn’t huge, and it’s basically bar food, but it was plenty. The night before we left, I ordered extra food so we’d have lunch for the airport (we took plastic containers so we wouldn’t have to buy food). We had chicken fingers, burgers, and then I had a hot dog the size of my arm. Like I said, nothing special, but yummy.

Cheeseburgers, Chicken Fingers, and Hot Dog from Room Service, Royalton Riviera Cancun

Cheeseburgers, Chicken Fingers, and Hot Dog from Room Service, Royalton Riviera Cancun

One thing’s for sure, if you go hungry at Royalton Riviera Cancun, you’re not doing it right.

And how about the drinks? Because we all know, we care about our drinks. That’s one reason we weren’t super in love with Catalonia – the drinks were bad. I’m happy to report that I had one bad drink at Royalton, and that was because I ordered it, not because it was made badly.

We drank a lot of mojitos, mimosas, margaritas, beers, house wines, Icebergs, and Mango Tangos – easily my favorite. We also had plenty of Grey Goose shots, tequila shots (oy), and fun shot concoctions like the Bumble Bee, Mini Beer, and others I don’t know the name of. The bartenders make mixed drinks with mid-range spirits, and if you ask for a shot, they bring you decent stuff instead of bottom shelf.

Mimosa, mojito, electric lemonade, margarita, blue margarita, and Mango Tango, Royalton Riviera Cancun

Mimosa, mojito, electric lemonade, margarita, blue margarita, and Mango Tango, Royalton Riviera Cancun

BumbleBee shot, Royalton Riviera Cancun

BumbleBee shot, Royalton Riviera Cancun

So there you have it – all the food and drink info you could ever possibly want to know about Royalton Riviera Cancun. Anyone planning a trip now?