All posts tagged “food

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Asheville, NC: More than Biltmore

Our 24 hour trip was nowhere near enough to see much more than Biltmore, but we did get one little taste (derp!) of Asheville before heading back to Charlotte—on our previous nite’s waiter’s recommendation we headed to 12 Bones barbeque in the River Arts Distract for a late lunch. (They close at 4pm, so don’t get there too late, as one guy did and was very sadly left knocking on the locked door.)

The drive from Biltmore in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a one lane road through the industrial warehouse side of Asheville in excruciating sunshine was a mind-numbing 45 minutes (in addition to the 25 minutes it took us to get out of the damn estate). But it was totally worth it.

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It might not look like it could possibly be worth that much effort, but as the best things in life usually do, this one came in an unexpected package. An order at the counter and then sit at an indoor/outdoor picnic table sort of place, one of the best things about 12 Bones was the  random clientele—everyone from an elderly couple to Asheville’s best-dressed rockabillies and hipsters seemed to be there enjoying the food.

 

They served fancily-flavored bbq with local ingredients, local beers, and the biodegradable corn type of disposables. I had blueberry-chipotle ribs, various type of pulled pork were tried, and we all (especially my vegetarian friend – one portobello burger for her) gorged on amazing sides like mashed sweet potatoes and cauliflower and cornbread. 

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They also had several unconventionally flavored ketchups/mustards—between those and their marinades we could probably single-handedly keep an online business going. Just sayin’, if someone at 12 Bones is interested….

 

I’m definitely bummed that we didn’t get to explore downtown Asheville. I hadn’t expected to feel quite as out of place in NC as I did (though maybe it was just the retiree-heavy Biltmore), but the rest of Asheville seemed like the kind of place we could hang out for a while. I mean, so far as I could tell, their "River Arts District" had galleries in actual warehouses, not post-modernist hipster, but "this is a real warehouse" at $5k for a month’s rent…

I’d really love to go back and see more than just Biltmore. Not too long after we got back to NY did I find out about this awesome-looking shop through my day job (they want to carry Esopus!):

 

And one last plug for the awesomeness of Asheville–not to be left off the map, they have their own street style blog:

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We did take the time to take the scenic route back to Charlotte (and miss my friend’s concert because of it, but that’s another story), and it was also way worth it. You see, I have this habit of looking at a map and saying, "But this way will also get us there and it looks cooler." And you know what, it usually is.

 

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So the trip to 12 Bones was just the beginning of NC-driving-induced-delirium for us, as we were soon winding through the mountains at 30mph not quite sure if we would ever reach a "real road." But there was plenty to see, and plenty to laugh hysterically at. (Hickory Nut Gap, NC anyone?) Luckily our plucky little rental Suburu was up for the challenge. (Pretty sweet for a rental, I know. It took us 2 hours and the manual to figure out it was mistakenly in "sports" mode.)

 

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Some highlights…

DSCF9992Idyllic Camp…Crystal Lake 

DSCF9995 "Moonshine Junction"

DSCF9999 Chimney Rock…is up there somewhere…

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Lake Lure

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What North Carolina does for fun…

So a good time was had by all at Biltmore, Asheville, and ultimately Charlotte. (Though please don’t get me started on their fresh-from-the-frat club scene…)

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Finally to Biltmore.

Back in April the boy and I had a wedding to attend in Charlotte, NC, and he and some friends relented to my quest to visit Biltmore Estate.

 

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Biltmore was another stop in a life-long obsession with the Vanderbilts, among other Gilded Age celebrities. Although it’s the largest privately owned home in the US, I was surprised to find it isn’t like the Hudson Valley, Newport, or Gold Coast mansions. It’s a home. Some rooms are spectacular, some rooms are, *gasp*, “normal” (for the early 1900s), and there are a lot of them! In its day as a private privately owned home, it was probably more like a supersized B&B. Such is why the Inn on Biltmore Estate is such a great concept.

 

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Our night’s stay at the Inn was a delicious splurge. I basically wished that I was still 9 years old, playing pretend that I was a special guest of the Vanderbilt’s daughter Cornelia. But being a grown up there was almost as good: the service was exceptional (hello upgraded room!), the rooms were lush, the grounds fabulous, and it was just so calming. I’m a New Yorker–I don’t know how to relax, and yet, there surrounded by aging Southerners taking a weekend away to read the paper on a terrace in the mountains, I was…unwinding.

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After we checked into the Inn the four of us headed the short (downhill) walk to the winery buildings for dinner. It was too late for most of the shops and wine tasting, but we were able to grab a yummy meal at the pub, and then explore the farmyard and kitchen garden. The sun setting over the mountains was a beautiful sight, best enjoyed frolicking among vegetables and [penned] sheep.There were even fireworks! (That, admittedly, the welcome letter in our room announced were “practice fireworks.”)

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The only snafu in our blissful 24 hours occurred when we went down to the pool/hot tub after dinner.  The boy and I were just beginning to relax in the romantic and deserted hot tub when we noticed that the underwater light was out and someone had placed it, still wired, onto the deck beside the hot tub. We were debating exactly how hazardous this was, when a hotel worker came out to take a look at it. He told us it needed a repair (obviously), and he’d have to shut down the pool area for the night. Sure it was a massive letdown, but he was so apologetic, and what else could you do. I consoled myself with the spa tab in our upgraded room instead.

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We got up early for a walk around the grounds with some complimentary (and delicious) coffee. It’s amazing how easy it is to get up at 7am when it’s not for work. We went by the pool area, and I was very impressed to find everything repaired and reopened.

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After checking out, we headed over to the house and grounds. Yes, it is such a Disneyfied experience, from the parking lot shuttles to the “ride” (I mean, walking tour) photos that you can purchase upon exiting. But, like Disney, it’s all very orderly , clean, and well-organized, with reasonably-priced, tempting gift shops (and outrageously priced foods). And you’re more likely to get stuck behind seniors than screaming 3-year-olds.

The house is…um…extensive. And I can hardly comprehend how there’s more to be seen behind the 50+ rooms on the basic self-guided tour. If we’d had more time, I was really lusting to do the rooftop/balcony tour. Nooks, crannies, stairwells and amazing views? Yes, please! If there’s a tower to be climbed, I’m all for it. And I think the boy would’ve enjoyed close-ups of gargoyles, even if he had to grapple with his fear of heights.

 

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The gardens are picturesque in the most art history use of the term. I’m not a Frederick Law Olmstead fan (he also designed Central Park), but there were some pretty views and had we not been EXHAUSTED by the 2.5 hour walk through the house, it would’ve been fun to explore everything at a more leisurely pace. The (expensive) horseback rides or bike rentals are probably lots of fun and a great way to see the grounds.

 

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But we had to get on the road, with a not-so-quick lunch detour and a very “scenic” scenic highway standing between us and seeing my friend open for Lupe Fiasco back in Charlotte. SPOILER ALERT: We did NOT make it in time.

 

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On the Road: Riviera Maya

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Before you read any further you should know that I’m a compulsive over-planner.

When I was a small child there were always charts involved regarding wardrobe choices, lodgings, attractions, etc. And ever since Excel has entered the world, that level of “organization” (I say tomato, you say tomato), can be taken to blissfully masochistic levels.


Therefore, had I know that the Riviera Maya was a region just begging to be spread sheeted I would never have bought our flights. And not as part of a package (because I became overwhelmed with all-inclusive options almost immediately and could not decide on a resort in the 3 hours before our JetBlue vouchers expired at 11:59pm August 4th).


Did I mention I’m also a procrastinator?


The ultimate irony didn’t strike until 3 weeks later when we finally (mostly) committed to a resort that was…Valentin Imperial Maya–my original choice during those frenzied hours on JetBlue.com. So maybe now I’ve learned to listen to my instincts and not untold hours of TripAdvisor-review-reading? Hardly. At any rate, one spreadsheet of 30 all-inclusive resorts later, I had a shortlist. The honorable mentions were:


Xpu-ha Palace.
I wanted to love this one, I did. In fact for almost all of the research process it was the standard which all the other resorts were measured against. Lots of critters for the FI and Robinson Crusoe (or is it Swiss Family Robinson?) bungalows for me. I could live with 2 restaurants and a non-existent beach since the Palace passport and free excursions seemed a worthy trade off. But I just couldn’t get past maxing out our budget for big black fences around an itty bitty pool. Sorry Xpu-Ha and your aviary…that I’m still daydreaming about.
There was Hacienda Tres Rios, part of a nature reserve! But astronomically expensive.
Grand Sirenis.
We actually seriously considered this like an hour after I found a review on TA with mention of a TON of bird species. I mean, haven’t you always wanted to visit the set of the Planet of the Apes sequels?
El Dorado Maroma.
Adorable bungalows. Or plunge pools on your balcony. Awesome deal. Sort of sad that the architectural discrepancy between the Mi Hotelito section and the rest of it is so horrifying it renders me totally unable to set foot on the property.
And lastly, Excellence Playa Mujeres. A great deal had through Amex Wishlist, that I’m still not entirely convinced they’re still not going to call me up and make me use. EPM (oh yeah, the Riviera Maya world is FULL of nonsensical acronyms) is known for its…wait for it…RTTs. Known in English as rooftop terraces, these come complete with plunge pools and giant outdoor beds. After an inappropriate amount of deliberation, this was given up for VIM, which was slightly more expensive but the reviews were more reliable and it allegedly had more animals. Is it obvious that I really wanted to go to EPM? Oh well, next time…
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VIM was stunning and I really can’t complain. Except to say that we weren’t there long enough. After playing Mexican roulette at customs (Scott lost and had all the shit–that’s right, because he was carrying both our bags–searched), we were picked up immediately. Thank you CancunTransfers–way to be completely on top of things, even when we rescheduled our return trip at the last minute!

I don’t understand the people who talk about Riviera Maya hotels in terms of not being close enough to the airport. I get not wanting to spend hours of your long weekend in a van, and probably would’ve regretted staying all the way in Tulum at some point or another, but VIM was like a sneeze away from the airport. I know don’t understand how people stay in Cancun proper without feeling like they’re at an airport hotel.

DSC_0194The driveway from Highway 1 (the Yucatan, much like Canada, really has one road) up to VIM’s “motor” entrance was endless, and I could practically smell the ocean in my excitement (enough research and map-looking-at and it’s like having internal compass). I entertained all sorts of daydreams about borrowing bicycles and riding along the driveway bird watching. Very ambitious, I would later learn. 

DSCF9438The entire place looked just like all the pictures in the best way possible. Complete with champagne. I got off to a responsible start by not finishing it in one gulp. Our swim up suite bred a level of laziness even I have never reached before. (Thank god we never ordered room service, because I seriously think if we had gone down that road, it would have been all over.)

The bed was comfy (so much for the hard Mexican beds rumor), the bathroom fairly luxe (though being spoiled I would’ve liked some tv in the sightlines of my spa tub), and the living area pretty useless, except for widening the distance between everything else and our pool access. (I did watch a movie and nap on the couch once to make it have purpose).

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Being able to walk outside and jump in the pool was literally a lifelong dream I didn’t even realize had never been realized. I mean, what little girl doesn’t want a pool? Especially during hot LI summers when every single one of her neighbors does? Pools to me, are quite literally the point of going on vacation. But I never really experienced what life would be like to truly have one in your backyard. It would be awesome.

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The beach was fairly awesome too. Mexico’s no Hawaii, but it was in serious contention with the Bahamas and rest of the Caribbean, and definitely surpassing California and Australia. And the best part—not a soul to bother you, no one selling anything! Beaches in Mexico are public, so it is surprising, and impressive that there was none of that. The VIM beach seemed to cater to every possibility, with plenty of quiet areas away from the volleyball, water sports, etc. The whole resort was very diverse in terms of people of different activity levels finding something for them.

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Our first morning there, I decided to take a yoga class. I was thinking, resort yoga class, that’ll be easy. Oh hahaha, tell that to “Eduardo” the sexy Mexican yogi a la pretty much every movie that’s ever featured vacation yoga. Hardest class I’ve ever taken–almost as rough as our 12 hour snorkeling extravaganza with Edventure Tours.

DSC_0821 The food on average was good to great. Not bad at all considering what we paid, and there really is something incredibly relaxing about not having to think about how much what you’re putting in your mouth costs.  After our Edventure day, we ate at Ginger, which was our favorite of the restaurants, I could have had a buffet full of their desserts, which sadly was not offered in buffet form. (For more food-related details, check out my review on Trip Advisor.)

After loads of Mexican food warnings, and the solid advice to do daily shots of Pepto, my delicate stomach was probably more affected by the possibility of getting sick than what I was actually eating. We ate all kinds of fruits and veggies (yes, I had salsa!) and drank the filtered(!) water, and for the most part were fine. In fact, there were several nights where I ate and drank such bizarre combinations of things (mudslides and sushi anyone?) that I‘m amazed I survived. (And the not fine could easily have been the antibiotics I’d taken a couple earlier that had, you guessed it, intestinal unpleasantness as a side effect.) I would advise to add some probiotics to the pepto routine and to keep taking both for a week after returning home.

We went in September which was hot, but bearable—you’re in or near the water most of the day anyway, and luckily for us it only rained briefly in Tulum and the morning we were leaving. Or maybe it rained other mornings and I just slept through them, haha.


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From someone who’s been there.
Don’t leave home without :
1) pepto, sunscreen and bug spray
2) a pool float – it’s worth the few bucks to not have to worry about whether or not they’ll be any around
3) singles!!  – the staff is great, and it’s so much easier to tip when you don’t have to track down the cash
4) more than one swim suit – today’s is not going to dry in time for tomorrow in all that humidity

What to do if you’re…
1) Feeling lazy. Book a swim-up suite – you’ll never have to worry about finding a lounger poolside when it’s right outside the room.
2) Feeling adventurous. Try Edventure tours. It really was the best day of our vacation.
3) Feeling thirsty. Find swim-up pool bartender David and ask him for his signature
mango, tequila, and milk concoction. Nothing short of amazing.