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On a Rock, In a Bay, On an Island, In Jamaica: Zimbali Retreat

If you’ve been paying attention at all, you will know that our trip to Jamaica was amazing. It was a week full of adventure and love in a spectacularly beautiful place. Amid all of this though, one day manages to stand out. Of course, it could have been because it was the first day I was in Jamaica with my fiancé (I promise to share more), but I think our visit to Zimbali Retreats would have been incredible under any circumstances.

A labor of love where life is lived in harmony with nature, Zimbali is a one of a kind place. We were not quite sure what to expect, but had heard that we should go there if we could. So we did. We booked the lunch culinary tour, so our driver picked us up from the Rockhouse around 9 am. After picking up one other couple, we made our way toward the retreat. I may have gotten a little carried away with letting everyone know that Brandon was my fiancé and that he had proposed only the evening before. Maybe. At a certain point, the road became rather bumpy. Honestly, being from Oregon and having a fiancé who likes “exploring” it was nothing worse than we have experienced on a logging road here and there, but it certainly felt like we were heading into the Jamaican wilderness. At times, sugarcane towered over the car, our driver noting that it would grow much taller before it would be harvested later in the year.

And then we arrived at Zimbali.

We were greeted at the gates and led through a lush paradise to a deck overlooking some of the gardens. As we waited, we were given fresh juice (starfruit and guava, maybe, I don’t really remember but whatever it was, it was delicious) to enjoy as we marveled at the tranquility surrounding us. Zimbali is a retreat from the world among the mountains. With lodging, gardens, and all organic meals, it is a place to escape and relax. If we ever make it back to Jamaica, we want to spend more time here. This time, though, we contented ourselves with the farm tour and freshly prepared lunch.

Brandon couldn’t resist the cute puppy

These avocados were HUGE. We would get a chance to try them with our lunch.

 

After a few more minutes of relaxation, we began our tour of the organic farm. There was so much to see. We hardly noticed the heat of the day as we were led throughout the farm, marveling at the variety of the produce being grown.

Our tour guide, Clifford, also works at the farm

Tropical paradise
Brandon ate this hot pepper. Because he’s weird.

A baby pineapple
The farm had many different varieties of bananas. We got to try several kinds, although I stopped after one because I don’t really like bananas, which happens to be one of the few food things I’m picky about. Brandon shared that each variety had a noticeably distinct taste from the others.

The scent of the lemongrass was amazing
The is called a peanut fruit. It tastes exactly like peanut butter. Brandon may or may not be growing one in the living room now, although the details of that should probably remain fuzzy.
Bamboo forest
Serenity and beauty were found in each moment and around every bend in the path

This is a lemon…

After the farm tour was the highlight of the day, lunch. We made our way back to the kitchen where we would enjoy lunch created with fresh ingredients straight from the farm. Everything served was either sourced directly from Zimbali or from a nearby farm. Or the ocean. Yay seafood. We had made our selections for the main course prior to beginning the farm tour.

All of this, even the honey, is grown or made at Zimbali

We had a choice of wine with our meal as we watched the first course being prepared.

The first course was a refreshing and tart salad with those giant avocados and a citrusy dressing.

The second course was an Indian inspired samosa. Only my impeccable, raised in the South manners kept me from licking that sauce off the plate. And asking for seconds.

And then came the main course. I had chosen jerk shrimp, which was served alongside a green plantain fritter. The shrimp was flavorful and perfectly spicy. My only regret was not being there long enough to try some of the other dishes that were offered.

And of course, no meal is complete without dessert. We were served rum cake with a banana and honey sauce. It was so good not even the bananas could bring me down.

Our day at Zimbali was incredible. Despite the rain that began to pour as we left, I wished we could have stayed longer. I already want to go back and spend a few days further exploring the mountain, relaxing in a hammock on a patio amid the lush gardens, eating more delicious food, and taking the Rasta culture and food tour offered at the retreat. If you are planning a trip to Negril, I highly recommend that you make Zimbali a part of it, preferably for more than a meal. I know we will be staying a few nights next time we are in Jamaica.

We ended our first day as an engaged couple back at the Rockhouse, relaxing by the pool (well, Brandon snorkeled) and counting our blessings. As we watched another dazzling sunset, we reflected on what had been a day of happiness – the joy of being engaged combined with a truly lovely day at Zimbali wrapped up in the felt gratitude of being in one of the most beautiful places.

This day was one of the perfect ones.

 

 

 

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On Ethan in Oregon and Getting Older

Although I generally accept getting older with stoicism and acceptance (after all, what can I do about it?), sometimes another birthday can bring out the less than stoic and accepting thoughts and feelings about adding an additional number to my age. Last year, I managed those thoughts and feelings with a trip to Hawaii. I’ll be honest, spending a few days on the beach with the occasional tropical drink in hand certainly helped ease the pain. Sadly, that was not gonna happen for this year’s birthday. So I arranged for the next best thing – a visit from my brother. It was his second trip to Oregon and we had just as much fun as the first time. And this time, Brandon got to tag along for our sibling adventures. Spending my birthday weekend (because after all a single birthday day is not quite enough) with two of my favorite guys was just about perfect.

We kicked off our weekend with a day trip to Crater Lake. This was a spot we had not made it to last time Ethan was here, but it was at the top of his list of places to go. So we went. Even though it was a bit cloudy that morning, we hoped that the weather would clear by the time we made it to the lake.

Off on our first adventure! The only thing that could make this picture better would be Evan.

All the catching up and scenic driving worked up an appetite, so we stopped at the quaint and delicious Beckie’s outside of the park. 

And we just couldn’t pass up the homemade pies. After all, we would be facing unknown risks in the still snowy mountains, so we needed plenty of fuel. Rather than choosing a pie of my own (because how can one choose among all that sweet deliciousness), I ate a bit of Brandon’s blueberry pie and a bit of Ethan’s pecan pie. Two kinds of pie instead of one kind of pie? Yeah, I think I made the best choice.

Our appetites adequately satisfied, we eagerly anticipated views of the bright blue lake. Brandon and I excitedly shared how amazing Crater Lake is, how Ethan would be almost unable to believe his eyes, that when one gets a first glimpse of Crater Lake, it is absolutely breathtaking. And then we were temporarily distracted from all this talk by the sheer amount of snow. Although the roads were clear, there were still feet of snow piled alongside the roads and on top of the buildings. In May. It was incredible.

After all of that – the drive, the talk of the amazingness of the lake, Ethan’s anticipation of finally seeing the much spoken of wonder that is Crater lake – this was the best view of the lake that we got:

Yep see that little sliver of grayish blue hidden under the clouds? That’s the lake. And it only got more cloudy from there. This was literally the best view of the entire day.

Sadly, this was actually Ethan’s best image of the lake – the short video about Crater Lake that we watched at the visitor’s center.

Despite the disappointment, we strapped on our rented snowshoes and made the best of the afternoon.

As you can tell, we still managed to have plenty of fun. We played in the snow, threw snowballs, attempted snow angels, and were generally silly.

We had taken a picture by this tree when we were at Crater Lake the previous September. The view was just a teensy bit different.

My first time snowshoeing, which has been on my Oregon Bucket List.

Action shot
The look on my face when I am considering forgiving Brandon for pushing me into the snow…

And the best pic of the day, even if I have no clue what is happening

Even though the lack of lake views was a bit disappointing, Ethan not really seeing Crater Lake means he will just have to come back to Oregon for another visit!

So, perhaps I have sort of given the impression that Ethan came to Oregon just for my birthday. Which he would totally do because he’s one of the two best brothers in the world and I’m certainly the best sister. But I may have left out the teeny, tiny little detail that he chose this particular weekend to come to Oregon because he was running in the Eugene Marathon. Which, of course, meant that I would be there to cheer him on. We headed up to Eugene the night before so Ethan could carb load at Olive Garden and because the next morning would be an early start.

Ethan picking up his race packet

It was that evening that I fully began to appreciate just how much my boyfriend and my brother have in common. Specifically, how nerdy they both are. Sitting between the two of them while watching Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (and the various previews prior to the movie) was amusing. They would laugh hysterically at the exact same moments. Freak out and demand my attention in their nerdy excitement about the same previews. It was equal parts heartwarming and humorous.

And then there was race day. I was rather surprised by how emotional I was about the whole thing. This certainly was not Ethan’s first race or even his first marathon, but it was the first one of which I had been a part and it brought out my proud big sisterness in unexpected ways.

Like the moment early in the morning when we sat in my car and talked, Ethan staying a bit longer than necessary to calm his nerves, me feeling strangely protective and worried as he walked away from my car to head to the start of the race.

Or when Brandon and I found a spot by the river to cheer him on around mile 18. I think I surprised both of us when I started crying rather intensely because I was so proud of Ethan and watching him do something so difficult and wonderful made me more than a little emotional.

And then there was the finish line. I was inspired watching so many people complete the challenge of a marathon, but there has been no experience in my life like watching Ethan finish the race. I know it might sound dramatic to be emotional about watching my brother running a marathon, but it was such an amazing experience and I could not be more proud of him.


A completed marathon called for a celebratory meal. We settled on Hop Valley Brewery for burgers and beer. Ethan may have been a bit delirious from exhaustion at this point, hence, the following series of pictures.

The food and drink were excellent and exactly what Ethan needed before passing out in the backseat on the way home. Which I documented in pictures, of course. I may have been a proud and emotional big sister, but I was a big sister nonetheless.

The following day was my birthday and Ethan’s last day in Oregon. Despite his aching body, Ethan was willing to make the drive out to the coast to celebrate. He may have requested Brandon to slow down, though, as his abs hurt each time the car took a curve. If you’ve ever made the drive to the coast, you know that curves happen frequently, poor guy.

We had no specific destination other than “the ocean” in mind when we left. Our first stop was a little seafood spot in Coos Bay. We ordered our freshly caught seafood from the restaurant sitting on the water and had a nice little picnic in a waterside pavilion.

From there we headed to a little spot we call “Secret Beach.” It may technically have another name, but sharing it here would make it rather less than a secret. And I like that there are few, if any, people there. Of course, that might have something to do with the crazily rutted, unmaintained, gravel road that you have to take to get there.

We spent the afternoon as one does on an Oregon beach – exploring, walking, relaxing, carrying logs, throwing a hatchet Brandon found abandoned on the beach. You know, the normal stuff.

And for my birthday dinner? We returned to the spot in Florence where we had found a crazy delicious pistachio drink when we had been there the previous year. Yes, I chose my birthday dinner spot entirely for this drink. It’s that good.

Thankfully, the food at 1285 Restobar was almost as good as that drink.

Steamer clams in a white wine sauce
My choice was a crab stuffed ravioli in a creamy lobster sauce that was absolutely delicious.
And because it was my birthday, I also got to sample Ethan’s fried oysters…
…and Brandon’s seafood pasta.
No birthday dinner would be complete without dessert. Despite being quite full by this point, we did manage to mostly finish off the tiramisu between the three of us.

It was altogether a lovely birthday. Getting to spend time with Ethan for an entire weekend certainly distracted me from turning another year older.

As we made the drive back home that evening, I couldn’t help but feel thankful to have had another year of life, a great life full of love and laughter and adventure, a beautiful life that I get to share with Brandon and Ethan and so many others. Getting older might not be so bad, after all.

 

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Love and Arkansas

Love is setting multiple alarms so I wouldn’t miss an early morning flight home. Actually, love is being willing to wake up this early for anyone, ever.

Love is Brandon braving his fears of tornados and water moccasins to fly halfway across the country with me in order to spend a mere 5 days meeting pretty much every person I’ve ever known. And doing it all with a smile on his handsome face.

Love is friends who are willing to drive through Dallas traffic to meet for a late lunch so that I could share the deliciousness that is Torchy’s queso with my boyfriend while introducing him to great friends and the first of many, many new people he would meet within a few short days.

Love is a favorite meal shared with friends, a meal not only of food, but of laughter and reminiscence.

Love is a friend who is willing to share her home and stay up way too late on a work night simply for the chance to catch up. 

Love is a meal of Whole Hog BBQ, another stop on the mission to eat all the Southern food.

Love is revisiting the campus where so many wonderful memories were made and trying to explain Harding to my favorite Oregonian.

Love is fried chicken and staying up late playing games and breakfast with enough food to feed an army.

Love is Midnight Oil granitas and best friends who are willing to create the time and drive hours just to meet the man in my life.

Love is a weekend spent in my little hometown. It is my dad’s blueberry pancakes. It is seeing the beautiful place I grew up through the eyes of someone to whom it was all new.

Love is time spent with family – in the car, over Easter dinner, and while drinking tea and laughing so hard that I couldn’t breathe.

One of my favorite pictures from the entire trip – my people being my people.

Love is the people and places that I call home. Especially the people. People who were so excited to meet Brandon and who welcomed him with open arms and open hearts. Love is, for the first time, visiting the home of my past with the one with whom I am building a future.

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Portland Weekend

I love living in Roseburg. I really do. I love my little house in a way I’ve never loved a collection of building materials combined to create a habitation. My 10 minute commute to work is amazing. The summer weather is everything sunny and perfect. I am surrounded by beautiful places. I love living in Roseburg.

However.

Roseburg does somewhat lack in the amenities department. True, there are some fantastic restaurants, but the options are limited. There is rather a dearth of cultural activities and date night options vary between the movie theatre and the bowling alley. I happily manage what Roseburg is missing with making any excuse to go to Portland for the weekend. In March, having some friends in town for a conference provided more than enough reason to leave my small town in southern Oregon for the big city of Portland.

Things I enjoyed in Portland that I cannot find in my little hometown included the food (of course), a chic hotel, and some iconic Portland sites, including a spot on my “Oregon bucket list.”

Because of a great deal on the HotelTonight app, we booked a room at the Hotel Eastlund in downtown Portland. This hotel had everything – style, comfort, amenities, and a great location with convenient location to the light rail.

There was even a great rooftop bar where we enjoyed sunset cocktails against the backdrop of the mountains in the distance.

Afterwards, we took a pleasant walk across the river into the Pearl District for dinner.

As I mentioned, I had friends coming into town for a conference. As the token Oregonian, I had chosen Irving Street Kitchen as the spot to meet for dinner. Pros: Excellent cocktails, an ideal location in the Pearl District, and great style. Plus, it was one of a handful of restaurants that easily took reservations for large groups.

We pretty much closed the place down – believe me, it was packed when we arrived. Even with a reservation there was a bit of a wait.

Cons: The food was solidly good, but not as wonderful as comparably priced restaurants in Portland and the service was slow.

Calamari and clams over squid ink risotto – perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Brandon’s risotto, but the squid ink seemed to add more novelty than flavor
Brandon shared that his steak was excellent and perfectly prepared

Even if Friday’s dinner slightly disappointed, we knew that Saturday morning we would get an unbeatable meal at our favorite restaurant – Le Chon. For the first time, we went there for brunch. It was not disappointing.

I’ve had many good meals in this place and hope there will be many, many more. If you go to Portland and have not eaten here, just do it. And maybe take me with you. And by that I mean definitely take me with you.
Oh my word. These were some type of apple fritter covered in honey with a side of marionberry butter. Oh. my. word.
Of course we had to get the empanadas. These are always a must, no matter the time of day.
Sometimes, just sometimes, he gets tired of waiting to eat until after I’ve taken pictures.
We chose a couple of entrees to share, one of which was the mushroom breakfast tacos.
My favorite was the chicken and biscuits – perfectly fried chicken (says the Southern girl) alongside a cheddar jalapeño biscuit topped with an egg and sausage gravy. This was legit.

Needing to walk off a few calories, we strolled along the river among the blossoming cherry trees before perusing the Portland Saturday Market.

And then!

And then we went to Powell’s.

Somehow, this book loving heart of mine had not managed to make it to this iconic Portland bookstore in the 2 1/2 years I had lived in Oregon. This was literally the biggest bookstore I had ever seen. I spent a blissfully undetermined amount of time (thank you, love) wandering among the maze of books, feeling both overjoyed and overwhelmed, inhaling deep breaths of the book smell, utterly content. It was perfection.

Although at heart, I will never be a city girl, I do love to spend some time there now and then doing all the city things that I miss. And Brandon, wonderful man that he is, tagged along for a weekend of some of my favorites.

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California Dreamin’: Santa Rosa

So all that spontaneity and stress from the drive to California was not pointless. We were going to California for a wedding, a very fun wedding. Although much of the weekend was spent in wedding related activities, we did manage to fit in a few extra activities. It was fun for me to get to see a place where Brandon had lived. And I think it was fun for him to show me around.

But, before I get into all that, this one picture from the wedding must be shared. Because he just looked so darn handsome.

For the weekend, we stayed at a VRBO on a small farm. It was quaint and comfortable and there were alpacas and big fluffy dogs that Brandon may or may not have considered stealing.

We also ate a lot of really good food. When the friends getting married are both professional chefs, you’re in good company. Everything, from the wedding catering (there was an entire pig), to the post-wedding brunch, to simple dinners out, was fantastic.

One of the great challenges for me about living in Oregon is the scarcity of good Mexican food. I couldn’t go to California without getting my fix. We began Saturday morning with breakfast burritos from what had been Brandon’s favorite spot for breakfast burritos when living in Santa Rosa. My veggie burrito did not disappoint. Too often vegetarian breakfast burritos are bland with an overabundance of eggs or under seasoned potatoes to other flavors. This one was perfect, with an ideal balance of eggs, rice, beans, cheese, salsa, onions, and bell peppers. No lack of flavor here!

Crab stuffed deviled eggs should be a thing everywhere. Imagine the best deviled egg you’ve ever had and then multiply that by 100.
Burrata has been a slight obsession of mine recently.
Smoked bacon omellete
A fancy Monte Cristo – I loved all the pickles on the side

The day after a wedding is as good an excuse as any for brunch. We were treated to a delicious brunch at Monti’s. Despite staying out a bit to late the night before and having to drag ourselves to the 11 am brunch, we quite enjoyed it. Everything was delicious.

Our last night in California, we went out for an excellent dinner with friends at Jackson’s in downtown Santa Rosa.

When you have to wait 45 minutes for a table, a pre dinner cocktail is a good idea. I tried the Shredder – Humboldt rum, orange amer, lemon juice, and pear puree.

And then there was the food, starting with way too many appetizers – chicken wings, more burrata (because obsessed), roasted cauliflower, and truffle fries.

And then somehow we ate more. I managed to eat about one shrimp taco and I think Brandon ate about half of his turkey sandwich. Nothing like the post-wedding happiness haze to contribute to rash food over-ordering.

We also fit in just a bit of sight seeing on Sunday. I think I mentioned that we had stayed out way too late after the wedding on Saturday. On Sunday, for every second of the entire day, we were struggling. Just imagine in all of the smiling pictures you will see below that behind the smiles, there are pounding headaches and profound fatigue.

When in Sonoma County, one must go wine tasting. Although the thought of alcohol may have been unpleasant at that moment in time, we somehow forced ourselves to go to exactly one tasting room. Our choice was Seghesio Family Vineyards. Although I certainly want to return to the area at a time when wine tasting is more, ummm, palatable, this was a great choice. I loved see how the vineyard was so different from the much smaller operations in the Umpqua Valley and I enjoyed the wines that are not grown in Oregon. We may have come home with multiple bottles of Zinfandel.

After rallying through wine tasting, Brandon wanted to show me downtown Santa Rosa. Specifically, he wanted to show me the Peanuts. Charles M. Schultz, the creator of the Peanuts cartoon, moved to the area with his family in 1958. They eventually moved to Santa Rosa, where he lived until his death. There are tributes to Mr. Schultz and the Peanuts throughout the city, including a museum. We were not really museum material that day, but we did enjoy walking around downtown and posing with the various statues. After stopping for coffee at the impressive Aroma Roasters.

All in all, not too shabby for two people who could barely walk.

The wedding was certainly the highlight of the trip. Even so, we had a great time fitting in some more fun things while we were in Santa Rosa. I can’t wait to go back!

Sometimes It’s The Simple Things

2016 was quite a year. It was a year of excitement and adventure, a year full of exploration and fun both across Oregon and in all new places. And it was a year that ended in the most perfect way possible, a much needed day full of the simple things that make life worthwhile.

A day of walking hand in hand along the beach with my love.

A day spent watching Sydney run up and down (and up and down and up and down) the sand with abandon, playing tag with the waves.

A day to appreciate the unparalleled beauty of the Oregon coast, often feeling like the only two people in the world as we listened to the waves and noticed the details of the nature surrounding us.

A day where we got to enjoy the freshest of fresh seafood.

A day when it was easy to find gratitude for each other and the life we live.

He makes my life better

A day, and a year, that ended with a sunset that seemed like it was meant just for us.

A day perfect in simplicity.

 

 

 

 


 

 

Brandon’s Birthday Break, 30th Bday Ed., finale

There are a lot of things I love about traveling. One of my favorite things is the food, something that was readily apparent from the number of food centric activities that we enjoyed during a single day in Seattle. I love trying new foods, exploring the culinary culture that is unique to a place. For Brandon’s 30th birthday trip, this meant eating some form of seafood pretty much every day. I was totally okay with that. This trip we ate at a mix of favorite spots and places recommended by others. Not a single meal, not a single bite of a single meal, disappointed. The following are some places you should definitely check out if you find yourself on Bainbridge Island or in Portland.

Harbour Public House was our first true vacation meal. Within walking distance of our VRBO, we had a nice stroll through downtown Winslow and along the water to the pub, which serves what I would best describe as gourmet pub food. Although with dishes like fried calamari and seafood and mussel curry, calling it pub food is a bit of an understatement.

Two thumbs up from the most discriminating seafood eater I have ever met. The beer-battered fresh Pacific cod made for fantastic fish and chips, even by Brandon’s almost impossible standards.

My seafood curry was the perfect mix of sweet and spicy

Mora Iced Creamery is a “can’t miss” stop, even when it’s 40 degrees outside. With flavors ranging from the familiar to the more creative, there is certain to be something for any taste. And if you just can’t make up your mind, sample to your heart’s content until you find that perfect flavor, or combination of flavors. Or, hypothetically, if two of you want to order the same flavor, you can keep trying the various options until someone gives in and decides that the other person  can have the chocolate peanut butter. Because you can’t order the same thing. Obviously.

It is hard to feel like you’ve “lost” when the consolation prize is more Mora’s ice cream. And I may have agreed to share a few bites of the chocolate peanut butter.

J’aime Les Crepes is a small creperie that was recommended by a friend. With options from sweet to savory, the authentic  French crepes made for a delicious and not-too-heavy breakfast. The thin, subtly sweet crepe was the perfect counterpart for veggies, cheese, and a hint of pesto sauce.

Manor House is the on site restaurant at the Inn at Pleasant Beach. It was the ideal spot for Brandon’s birthday dinner and probably the biggest splurge of the trip. The setting was intimate and romantic, just where I wanted to be on a cool, rainy night.

After perusing the menu, we started with cocktails and the out of this world manila clams. Despite the fact that we were in a super fancy restaurant, I was sorely tempted to lick the bowl clean.

We each went with the 3-course Chef’s Tasting Menu with wine pairings. The tasting menu had multiple options for each course, so we had a selection of dishes to share. Although really I think I could have eaten more of the clams and been perfectly content.

Calamari sauteed in a white wine and tomato sauce
Truffled mushroom flatbread
Linguine with prawn scampi
Cassoulet with a white bean ragout
And for dessert we shared the vanilla ice cream with berries and a dulce de leche bread pudding. Or at least, we tried. Honestly, we were so full and satisfied by this point that we couldn’t take more than a few bites of each.
Happy birthday, my love

Our last food stop before leaving Bainbridge Island was Doc’s Marina Grill. Because we needed to get one more seafood fix before leaving the island.

Lunch with a view
More manila clams, this time in a garlic and white wine sauce with andouille sausage thrown in for good measure
Clam chowder (are you sensing a theme?)
And a warm, cheesy, Dungeness crab risotto

Back in Portland, we had a second birthday dinner at our favorite, favorite spot, Le Chon. I have written about this restaurant before because it is, after all, our favorite. But I really can’t get enough of this place. And one birthday dinner really isn’t enough.

“Our” table by the fish tank
My usual, the mediterraneo – a twist on a pisco sour
I can’t remember what Brandon ordered, but it came in a super cool mug
Burrata topped with grilled green onion pistou, golden raisins, and marconas served with griddled bread
Grilled steak
Truffle fries, of course. I’m pretty sure we ordered empanadas, as well. But we probably started eating them too quickly to get a picture. You should always order the empanadas.
One of our favorite dishes is the grilled octopus with chorizo and fried potatoes

On the last morning of our trip, we managed to check another spot off my Oregon bucket list while eating delicious donuts at Blue Star. These are considered by many to be the best donuts in Portland. Blue Star utilizes a brioche dough that takes almost 20 hours to make, which is done with only the best ingredients. And then they top the donuts with creative and delicious flavor combinations, like blueberry bourbon basil and orange olive oil. These are donuts gone upscale.

We shared an apple cider fritter and a peanut chocolate covered donut. Both yummy!

And with that, our days of eating dessert for breakfast and clams every other meal were sadly over. At least for this trip! I loved planning Brandon’s 30th Birthday Break. Even more, I loved getting to spend a week celebrating a new decade of his life. I can’t wait to see what’s next!

 

 

What I Ate in North Carolina

I would normally have more to share than a handful of restaurants after visiting a new place. Alas, because I was in North Carolina for a conference, I actually had to work. I spent most of my days in hotel conference rooms, soaking in the interesting and informative lectures. In between learning, I did manage to fit in a few delicious meals.

Of course, the plan was to spend the partial day I had before the conference exploring a bit. That plan was rather disrupted when housekeeping knocked on my door that morning. Somewhat baffled by housekeeping bothering me quite so early in the morning, I looked at the clock. Only to realize that it was after 11 pm. Jet lag, man. So, not quite so much time to explore, but, with my first trip to NC, I did get to enjoy legit fried chicken, actual sweet tea, and still-warm-from-the-oven cornbread (oh how I miss Southern food). I visited a charming French bakery, chowed down on wood-fired pizza, and met up with college friends for dinner.  Although I spent most of my time either at the conference or eating, I did also find time to stop in at a fantastic and accessible museum.

Without further ado, here is my quick overview of places (okay, mostly restaurants) to visit if you find yourself in Charlotte, NC. I am so glad to have friends who make such great recommendations!

Mert’s Heart and Soul: When I think of things I miss about the South, home cooked Southern food is high on the list. In fact, it is probably right behind friends and family on the list and well above the weather. Which might not be on the list at all, as a matter of fact. Being in NC, I knew I would not be getting quite the home cooked experience, but Mert’s came pretty darn close. My co-workers and I headed there upon a recommendation from my friends in NC and I do not think anyone regretted the choice. I went all out, choosing fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and okra and tomatoes. With sweet tea of course. And the cornbread. Oh the cornbread. I could write poems about the cornbread. This is definitely a place to check out while in Charlotte.

The good stuff

Amelie’s: Another recommendation from a friend, this seemed like the perfect spot for lunch after waking up a little later than intended that morning. From the moment one walks in the door, it is hard to not be completely charmed by this spacious and unique bakery. And the food was perhaps even more impressive than the decor. My choice (not an easy one, to be sure) was the chicken salad sandwich and a side of truffle potato salad. You had me at truffle. Oh, and an iced coffee. Did I mention I was rather jet lagged? And you know I saved room for dessert. That was an even more difficult choice. Thankfully, many of the desserts came in a mini-size. The sole purpose of a mini-dessert’s existence is so that you can eat more of them without feeling guilty.

Life is full of difficult choices

Tupelo Honey: The fact that this is a chain restaurant did not make it any less delightful. Of course, that could have been the company, as well. One night while in NC, I had the privilege to meet up with two of my friends from college, who I had not seen since, well, college pretty much. I love that I have friends all over the US and the world. And that sometimes even when I am far away from home, I get the chance to see them. As I sat on the restaurant’s balcony, happily eating fried green tomatoes and “burnt” okra while enjoying the cool of the evening, I was so thankful to be spending an evening catching up with old friends.

Mama Ricotta’s: Although I could happily have eaten ALL the Southern food, this Italian restaurant was a nice change of pace for my last evening in NC. Fair warning if you decide to enjoy a meal here, this place was packed! Thankfully, my co-worker/friend and I got there in time for an early dinner. By the time we left there was a line out the door. And it was easy to see why. The food was fresh and authentic. With plenty of garlic. I don’t think there are many better food combos in the world than pizza, salad, and wine. There is, of course, turkey, dressing, and cranberry sauce, but that is for another time.

Levine Museum of the New South: Obviously, this is not a restaurant. Other than seeing what was to be seen walking around downtown Charlotte, this was the other non-food stop I experienced during my time in NC. I was, after all, there to actually attend a conference. Despite being non-conference related, I did learn as I perused the museum. The Levine Museum focuses on the history of the South, especially in and around NC, since the end of the Civil War. The main exhibit is interactive and engaging, even for an adult. It was well worth the time spent and the $8 entrance fee. I would recommend this as a stop to anyone visiting Charlotte.

Of course, there was more I would have liked to do while in Charlotte. But, I feel like I made the most of my time. And I got to attend a wonderful conference. I will not bore you with the details of that. Just trust me on the food.

A Year and One Post Aren’t Long Enough

When I last left off, Brandon and I were in the middle of our weekend trip to Bend to celebrate our first year together, the first of what will hopefully be many years together. I had fully intended to share the weekend in a single post, but some things are too big for that. I am so thankful to love and do life with someone who can fit so much living into a single weekend.

And I love that, even when we are away on our adventures, we still find ways to incorporate the routines we love when we are home. For instance, one of our favorite things to do on the weekends is to go out for brunch. Unfortunately, one limitation of Roseburg is that there are approximately two places to go. It is a wonderful change of pace to do one of our favorite things in a place with a few more options.

Saturday we began the morning with breakfast at Riverhouse’s onsite restaurant, Currents. I really cannot think of a better way to start a morning than drinking a blood orange mimosa and eating huevos rancheros while sitting next to a river on a sunny day across from my favorite person. Well, maybe the day would be slightly better if that river were in Europe and not Oregon, but only slightly.

It may seem like a lot of food, but really we needed the fuel. I promise.

As you may remember, at the beginning of the year we had also spent the weekend in the Bend area. One of our favorite things that we did that weekend was take a cave tour. We toured the only cave in the area, Boyd Cave, that is open in the winter. The other caves are hibernation habitats for bats and are closed beginning in the fall. Brandon really wanted to see some of the other caves while they were open over the summer.

And that fact – Brandon wanting to go caving – leads me to this: sometimes, I wonder how we are together. Like when he wants me to watch shows about cars with him (which I do, because love) or when he convinces me to do things that require a hardhat. Sometimes we have very different definitions of fun.

Our first stop was Arnold Ice Cave, which is one in the system of lava caves that are sort of, technically, but kind of not really, open to the public. You see. People are terrible and do things like throw parties and leave graffiti in the caves. Which adversely impacts the cave habitat. Therefore, many of the signs marking directions to the caves have been removed to prevent people from finding them. So yes, in the summer most of them are not barred shut (a few are shut all year, although with Wanderlust Tours there are some tours that give you access to these otherwise completely closed caves – we had a great experience with them in January), but you have to do a bit of sleuthing to actually find them. And then drive down a gravel road or two.

Arnold Ice Cave, thus named because it was once a solid sheet of ice inside (and I imagine still is in the winter months) and at one time was even mined for ice to sell in the nearby city. We could tell that there had been some infrastructure in place. For instance, there was a parking lot of sorts along with the remains of a staircase inside the cave.

But any infrastructure was either no longer maintained or had even been actively destroyed. But that just means it is even more fun, at least according to this guy:

The descent to the mouth of the cave was reasonably steep and required a bit of scrambling. The cave did not go really far back. Although I can only take Brandon’s word for that because I got a bit stuck on the climb in because of short legs. And perhaps some unwillingness to further risk life and limb.

It was a fun spot to explore, though, and it was interesting to see how the cave, despite being in the same cave system, was distinct from the one we crawled through earlier in the year.

We initially planned to return to civilization and explore Lava River Cave, part of the larger Newberry National Volcanic Monument. It was, after all, on my Oregon Bucket List. Unfortunately, we were thwarted by white nose syndrome and honesty. White nose syndrome is a fungal growth that affects bats and is believed to be carried from cave system to cave system by human activity. The syndrome is deadly to bats. Who need to not die because they kill mosquitoes. Save the bats! Because Arnold Ice Cave and Lave River Cave are in different cave systems, we couldn’t bring anything into the cave that had been worn in another cave unless it had been washed. We could have lied when the nice ranger asked us about previous cave activity, but that would have just not been cool.

So on to an as yet unformed Plan B. After a bit of googling, we settled upon the short drive to Smith Rock State Park, which was also on my Oregon to do list.

Oh. My. Goodness. This place was beyond, beyond words. And the pictures come nowhere close to doing justice to the immensity of it all. I can’t even.

May I bring your attention to the seemingly tiny bridge that is actually built for humans to walk on even though this picture makes it look like something made for the scenery of a model train track. Also, please do not miss the switchbacks on that trail.

To get to Smith Rock requires a walk down into the canyon. Which was rather pleasant if one could ignore the pressing thought that what goes down must come up and that getting back to the car would require a painfully steep and not exactly brief hike back up the trail. Once at the bottom, there are many ways to explore the park.

One of the most popular trails, the 3.8 mile Misery Ridge Loop, is one that we would love to return and hike. Like, I must return and hike that trail one day. This day, however, we had nonnegotiable (because there was no way I was missing out) dinner reservations for which we were getting all dressed up, so we contented ourselves with walking along the River Trail.

He is just so handsome

Of course, by the time that we got back to the top, we felt like this:

Although hiking is usually our activity of choice, Smith Rock is a hugely popular climbing spot. It is also a popular spot for crazy people. As we pulled into the parking lot and got out of the car, we noticed someone slack lining across the canyon. I was on my way to pay the $5 fee for parking, so I excitedly asked Brandon to hurry up and take a picture of the crazy person walking across a death defying drop into the space between really tall rocks on nothing but a too thin piece of rope. I was sure this was a unique sight that must be captured on camera immediately to document the insanity before the person either fell or crossed to the other side. After all, there could not possibly be more than one such crazy person in the park.

The thing is, this was not an isolated event. The entire time we were there, we saw people doing this. Smith Rock must be some type of magnet for adrenaline junkies with no proper sense of danger.

As much as we would have loved to explore longer, as I mentioned we had dinner reservations. At Brickhouse. It was so delicious last time, that we knew we had to eat there again.

All cleaned up and ready to eat delicious food
Brandon ordered an old fashioned and I tried something close to a lemon drop with elderberry
We shared baked brie and roasted garlic to start, the kind of dish that is simple perfection
Brandon’s choice was the seafood pasta I had ordered the last time we were there. I may have stolen a bite. Or two or three.
Despite kind of wanting to be boring and order the seafood pasta again, I branched out in the knowledge I could steal some of Brandon’s dinner and instead ordered coconut shrimp.

Of course all of this, the amazing food, the even more amazing company, would pale in comparison to how the dinner ended. To fully appreciate this, you must understand that I am an Arkansas Razorback fan. In my family, watching Razorback football on Saturdays is second only to going to church on Sundays. At any given family gathering, at least 50% of those in attendance will be wearing Razorback red. This is not a thing that is taken lightly. Sadly, since moving to Oregon I have not been able to see much SEC football. That is why I hardly paid attention to the TV in the corner of the bar of the fancy restaurant where we were eating a sophisticated dinner, attention lovingly focused on one another as it should be during a romantic anniversary dinner. As I polished off the last of my coconut shrimp (because I’m not so sophisticated that I leave perfectly good shrimp on the plate) I happened to glance up and then return my attention to Brandon because we were, after all, on a date. And having your date stare at football the entire time is obnoxious.

But then I realized what I had seen. Of all things, THE RAZORBACKS WERE ON TV!!!

With all apologies to Brandon, who handled the situation with much grace, I became rather distracted. I was disappointed that they were losing to TCU, but thrilled to be watching the game. And then, with seconds left in the game Arkansas tied it up!!! I mean just picture this. I am all dressed up, in a nice restaurant, celebrating my one year anniversary and it is all I can do not to stand up and call the Hogs. As one overtime became two became a Razorback victory, I was inhibiting all kinds of noises that would have been entirely inappropriate. I would say that Brandon became acquainted with an entirely new side of me that evening. He even put up with the post-game texts between my brothers and me. Oddly, it was just so perfect. Of all the things and of all the days.

Because I was hyped on adrenaline by then, the only thing we could do was go back to the hotel and order dessert at the lounge. Because I so needed to add sugar to the mix.

It was another perfect day and the trip was not over yet.

Remember the Lave River Cave that we couldn’t see the day before? We returned on Sunday to visit there before heading home.

It has definitely been more developed than other caves in the area, but for good reason. The mile-long lava tube is the longest continuous lava tube in Oregon. The bridges and stairs at the beginning get you over the uneven and steep parts rather painlessly and then the cave continues on, the floor flat and alternating between sandy soil and rocky areas. In order to explore, you must have some type of light. We brought our own headlamps, but lanterns are available to rent if you don’t happen to keep headlamps in your trunk like Brandon. But really, who doesn’t keep headlamps in their trunk? It gets completely dark quite quickly and although the walk for much of the cave is relatively flat, there are unexpected rocks and dips in the floor that have probably caused a sprained ankle or two.

I think Lava River Cave is certainly worth a stop. Plus, it’s two miles of walking in what is essentially perfect climate control, even when it is hot outside. With temps in the 40s, you will want to bring a jacket, but it is actually quite pleasant. It was the ideal last stop before the drive home.

Brandon planned the perfect weekend. And then the last minute changes in plans and the unexpected surprises made the weekend even better. I look forward to many, many more adventures together!

A Year Isn’t Long Enough

Fair warning: This could get mushy. Proceed at your own risk.

We had a lovely summer: hot afternoons spent floating the Umpqua River or relaxing half in and half out of the river’s pleasantly cold water, weekends of camping and hiking that were over before they began, my first music festival, and, most of all, falling even more in love with this man whose adventurous and fun-loving nature had pushed me out of my comfort zone and whose kindness and substantial love created a safe place for me to be myself. This had been the most absolutely wonderful summer of my entire life. I even managed to buy a house and move into it almost exactly two years to the day after arriving in Oregon. It was simply perfection.

But the summer, as do all good things, ended. September snuck in with its subtly cooler nights and a hint of frantic energy as the world around us returned to routines and regularity. We could not let the summer end without one last hurrah and our one year dating anniversary  provided the perfect excuse. Our destination a secret until almost the last minute, I anticipated our weekend away and reminisced on what a summer, what a year, it had been.

Brandon planned a weekend full of the things we most loved to do – appreciating beautiful scenery, preferably by foot, having adventures with at least a slight possibility of injury or death, exploring new places, eating an almost embarrassing amount of mouthwatering food, and most of all, spending time together.

We began the weekend with a stop by Crater Lake. A place I have visited and written about multiple times since moving to Oregon, I don’t think I will ever tire of seeing the unbelievably blue water and incredible views to be found in the national park.

We arrived right at lunchtime and decided to eat lunch in the lodge restaurant before setting out to explore. The lunch was delicious, especially considering that Crater Lake is in the middle of nowhere and that bringing in supplies cannot be the most straightforward matter.

Staying here is on my Oregon Bucket List. Maybe next year.
We shared the soup of the day, which was a flavorful, brothy soup with sweet potatoes and brussels sprouts.

Brandon’s choice of the frittata was, no surprise, shockingly similar to breakfast food.
And I chose the crab salad in avocados because everything is better in a bowl made out of an avocado. And because calories do not count on vacation.

After lunch, we set out to explore a bit of the park.

At this point we needed to burn off at least part of our lunchtime calories with a hike. Plus, the day was absolute perfection with blue skies and sunshine for days and a temperature in the low 70’s. It was the kind of day that makes you happy simply to be alive to witness it. Such a day should never be wasted indoors. After considering our options, we settled on Watchman Lookout Trail.

See that teeny, tiny building at the top? That’s where we were going.

It was short enough, less than a mile to the top, to easily fit with our other plans for the day. Plus, it was challenging enough to feel like an actual hike, not just a walk, with a steady uphill climb, but the switchbacks were not so steep as to make you regret your life (I’m looking at you Garfield Peak). And then there were the views.

The hike offered open views of the surrounding scenery with glimpses of the lake. Once at the top, which is an old fire lookout (hence the name of the trail), there is an unparalleled view of Crater Lake, the kind of view that makes it hard to breath because it is so beautiful.

It is moments like this, where I am in a place almost too beautiful to be believed, arm in arm with the man I love, that gratitude comes most easily. It presents as a sense of overwhelming joy that tangibly wells up inside of me until I am full of emotion, inexplicably crying because I am so perfectly, so undoubtedly, happy.

What a way to start the weekend!

After Crater Lake, we headed toward our ultimate destination for the weekend, Bend. As you may recall, we had started the year in Bend amid the snow and the cold. Brandon wanted to return in the warm weather and while the caves were still open for the year.

At the last minute, the vacation rental he had reserved for the weekend fell through. The silver lining of that is that we ended up staying at Riverhouse on the Deschutes.

As an (obviously relevant) aside, the Deschutes is the major river in this area of Oregon. Thus, there are many places and things with Deschutes in the title, much as you find with the Umpqua River in Roseburg. Although my southern accent is generally not too noticeable, when I pronounced Deschutes, my accent was not just present, but entirely unmistakable. Which meant Brandon took every opportunity to have me say “Day-shoots.” Apparently my elusive accent is both endearing and quite funny.

But back to the hotel. It was lovely. The rooms were spacious and comfortable, with understated design that fit with the hotel’s overall modern-with-a-hint-of-rustic feel.

Built along both sides of the Deschutes River, river views were plentiful. Although our last minutes plans prevented maximizing the trip with a river view room, there were certainly plenty of opportunities to enjoy it while we walked across the pedestrian bridge to the main part of the hotel or to the pools.

I should probably mention that immediately prior to the trip, Brandon had spent 2 days singlehandedly moving 10 yards of dirt that had been delivered unceremoniously onto my driveway to the backyard so that we could plant grass. Not only did that effort make me feel incredibly loved (I mean, the guy literally moved a mountain of dirt for me), but it also meant Brandon was really in need of a hot tub to sooth aching muscles. Good thing Riverhouse delivered with not just one, but two, hot tubs.

Here is the point when I would normally tell you about the amazing dinner we had after settling into our hotel. You know, the usual unique spot with locally sourced food that we tend to frequent when we travel. However. Upon consulting some of our usual sources for finding the previously mentioned type of restaurant, I happened to notice that there was a Johnny Carino’s nearby. Brandon had never been to Carino’s and I had not been since I moved to Oregon. In that moment, I knew that if I really loved him, I would allow him to have Italian nachos in his life. And by allow, I mean freak out and demand that we go to Carino’s for dinner despite all of the other amazing options available in Bend.

True love on a plate. We both felt good about this decision.

So perhaps our day did not end on a typically “gourmet” note, but it was pretty much a perfect day full of beauty and love and, yes, delicious food. I can’t think of a better kind of day and this was just the beginning.