Sunday, December 30, 2007

Reminiscing the past, resolutions for the future....

With only a few more hours to go, most of us are probably reminiscing about what has gone by, or dreaming about what is possible in the days to come. Amongst other things, this is the year I started this blog, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I resolve to make it a bigger and better blog for 2008.

My husband and I are going to New York early tomorrow morning and I suppose we better get down to packing. I hope to come back with exciting tidbits and pictures from our short trip to share with you. I probably won't be back writing until the 4th January, but I will be back. So watch this space in 2008!

Whatever your plans may be - be it having a house party, relaxing with family, celebrating it in a remote place of natural beauty, or amongst millions of avid revelers, here's wishing you a Very Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Must we be so politically correct?

I realized I had not been as politically correct as I should have been when I wished everyone in my classroom a Merry Christmas. "It's Hanukkah too Miss" came the disgruntled reply somewhere from the back.

It was my first Christmas or holiday season in the US, and as a teacher of a 7th grade classroom. Having lived in a Christian country (UK) for a significant time where everyone said "Merry Xmas" made it difficult for me to make the transition to "Happy Holidays". But I had to, because that is what is said in PC America.

The thing is, I am not even a Christian. In fact, I am a Hindu, and practice moderately. I spent my formative years in India, and we always put up a tree in our living room every December. We sent cards to all our friends in India and abroad. We wished school friends a Happy Christmas. We had cake from our favorite shop in Kolkata on Christmas eve.

It never occurred to me that we didn't or shouldn't have to say those two words because we weren't Christian. Nor that we should be offended if anyone wished us it. Our family celebrated it with as much fervor as we did our own festivals. And I certainly feel the richer for it.

I am not saying that my experience is a common one. I am simply wondering whether there is actually something wrong with enjoying the social delight of an occasion? I also find it sad and preposterous that non-Christians would be offended simply because it is not part of their religion. I am lucky that I was not brought up to think that way, and believe that the world would be a much better place if we didn't have to watch our words all the time. We have enough problems as it is.

On that note, I hope that you are enjoying the holidays.....

Friday, December 21, 2007

Delightful Performance at the Chicago Symphony Center

Attending a performance at a world-class venue is a wonderful way of integrating into the local cultural scene. Just as a Broadway show in New York or a West End play in London should be on every avid traveler's hotlist, so should the Chicago Symphony Center in Chicago be seriously considered by all visitors and residents.

The Orchestra's 116-year history began in 1891 when Theodore Thomas, then the leading conductor in America and a recognized music pioneer, was invited by Charles Norman Fay, a Chicago businessman, to establish a symphony orchestra here.(ref www.cso.org). The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is the third oldest orchestra in the Unites States, and they play at the beautifully restored and acoustically sound (no pun intended) Orchestra Hall at the Chicago Symphony Center.

The Chicago Symphony Center is very centrally located on Adams and Michigan in downtown Chicago. There is a self-parking lot opposite the center, and a valet-parking service for $15 (check the website for details).

As soon as you enter the lobby, you are whisked off into a world of old-style elegance. Chandeliers and red carpet as well as well-heeled doormen greet you efficiently. Well-dressed patrons look around to see whose attire flatters the most. Particularly enduring are the complementary throat lozenge stands, courtesy of Walgreen's. Should you feel a bout of coughing might ruin the concentration of the musicians, feel free to grab a handful. That's what they're for.

We attended a fabulous evening of music from Rachmaninoff, Kancheli and Janacek. The acoustics of the Orchestral Hall are very impressive. The electrifying performance of Rachmaninoff's 4th piano concerto on the Steinway grand reverberated with amazing passion. The musical sadness and sweetness of the the Georgian Duduki, a native instrument, was so effectively captured by the western instruments, that it really tugged at the heartstrings.

To select a performance, simply go the website and click on the 'Season Calendar'. The process thereon is very self-explanatory, and if you're flexible about when to go (e.g. a weekday), you can get a reasonably-priced ticket. Ours cost $42 per person for a Tuesday night performance, and our seats were great too. You can select your seats online using the handy Visual Seat Selector.

As far as classical performances go, I have been lucky enough to attend the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal Festival Hall and the Royal Opera House in London, the Zürich Opera House in Zürich, Kursalon in Vienna and now the CSO in Chicago. I did stand outside the Sydney Opera House in 2004, but I guess that doesn't count. What about you? I want to hear from all those who have attended very memorable performances in some of the most beautiful classical venues around the world. Drop me a line here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Favorite shows and songs - a little digression

I was recently mortified to hear that one of my favorite TV shows, 'Journeyman' had allegedly been canceled by NBC - perhaps that is why I have been posting less :). The final episode airs this Wednesday on NBC at 10/9C. If you haven't seen it at all, I guess it's a bit late to start now, although the slick acting should be enough to get your attention.

Fans (including myself) have been posting comments furiously on the NBC blog to try to sway the decision-making naysayers, so who knows. I'm keeping my fingers crossed. I tivo'd last night's episode in favor of watching 'Fracture' on DVD. A truly slick and entertaining thriller. If it's not on your Netflix queue, it should be.

Moving on to music, I thought you might like to know that the Number One song on the British charts now is a beautiful rendition of 'What a Wonderful World' by Katie Melua and the late Eva Cassidy. I heard it the other day while listening to streamed UK radio, and it was heartwarming. Katie Melua is a Georgian-born UK singer with a soulful and jazzy edge, and is only in her mid-20s! Check out another song by her called 'Nine Million Bicycles'. It is a tear-jerker and hopelessly romantic. Both these songs are available for viewing on Youtube.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

How to party in Times Square (NYE) and beat the cold!

It sounds so sexy and exciting, doesn't it? Watching the ball drop in Times Square has got to be one of the best ways of spending New Year's Eve. Well, not if you're not a teenager anymore. Not if you haven't loaded up on the hot dogs and beer, and aren't really in a mood to scream your way into the new year, just to keep yourself warm, along with a million other die-hard revelers.

Many of us are enamored with the idea of being in New York, in Times Square and watching the crystal ball drop live. I am one of those people. But I am also one of those people who are not excited about the prospect of standing in the freezing cold for hours. So if you're like me, and realize that spending those few extra dollars could make a difference between having a really good time and having an anti-climactic and miserable time, then read on.

What I am suggesting is to check out the gazillion parties going on around the Big Apple. As a starter, I can suggest the pretty comprehensive site below. You can check out offerings from multiple cities around the US, but go over to New York, where there are about 150 listings (when this article was written).

Be it the Meatpacking District, Greenwich Village, Midtown or Bryant Park, there is something for everyone. There is something to suit all budgets too. Most offer a live broadcast of the ball drop, even those near or in Times Square. It's fascinating just to find out about all the parties!

So this is what we did. After spending a good few hours on this site in conjunction with Google Maps, we figured that a good choice would be the bar at the Paramount Hotel. On 46th St and minutes from Times Square, this nightspot offers passed hors d'oeuvres, a champagne reception, a 3 1/2 premium open bar - all for $79! And get this - you do have the option of stepping out to catch the ball drop live since its minutes away, or if you can't stand the cold, to just stay in and catch it live on the screens. The best of both worlds!

Then there's a general admission at most of these places for around $30 after 12:30 am. So say if you did opt to stay out most of the night, but then wanted to have a drink or two after it's all over, it doesn't have to break the bank!

So there you have it. You could have a fabulous night drinking top shelf stuff, nibbling on goodies, keeping warm, and being near it all. Caveat: Not all general admission prices are in the $80 range, so shop around! The bigger name clubs and nightspots may have general admission tickets from $150 upwards, but they may offer more than some of the more reasonably-priced places. Go for something which suits you, in terms of budget, what's included in the price, and location. And remember that the experience will last you a lifetime. You will have some good stories to tell, and glamorous memories to hold on to!

If you do decide to give this a try, or have done so already, don't forget to drop in a line here. But whatever you end up doing, have a great New Year's Eve!

The New York City 2008 Party list

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

New York City, here I come!

We did it! After hours of procrastinating about whether we should, we did it! A $5 flight to NYC on the 31st Dec.

I kid you not. If you have 15000 airmiles with American, you can do it too. We sat at the computer the other day, not expecting our miles to take us anywhere decent over the New Year's period, and couldn't believe it when the Big Apple turned out to be an option. All it cost us was $5 for the transaction. Sweet. We snapped it up, and sped over onto Expedia to get us a decent room. Given that we spent virtually nothing for the room, we were able to get a room averaging about $350 per night. Not bad for this time period in NYC.

I cannot wait to make the trip and give you all an update. Being in one of the world's greatest cities on New Year's eve has always been a dream. Have you done it? Perhaps Sydney, Paris, London? Maybe you have a great story to tell about just a wonderful New Year's you spent? Share it here....

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Savvy holiday gifts of the edible kind

Do you have a friend or relative, who you know is a gourmand and for whom you want to get the perfect food-related gift, but are completely stumped??? Look no further.

Edible Arrangements will do delicious fruit baskets arranged bouquet-style! They'll even deliver gourmet-chocolate dipped strawberries for you! Go to their website and browse the amazing array of arrangements for different budgets and occasions. Prices start from around $32 for choco-strawberries to $230 for a mind-blowing deluxe fruity arrangement.

I love the idea of a wine aerator, and Binny's stocks the Vinturi Wine Aerator at $36. This is such a neat gift for a wine aficionado. Wine is poured through the aerator to help it mix with the air and open up its bouquet.

Have you ever visited the site Signature Days? This is a great way to gift someone an edible experience to remember! Be it a cookery or wine class, food tours, dinner cruises, or personal chef cooked meals, the choices are bountiful and delicious. Check the dropdown on the home page to see if your destination is covered...it should be!

I hope my friends are reading so they get some ideas for yours truly :).

So there it is, just a few ideas to get you started. Let me know if any of them worked out for you....


The Top 25 travel web sites

Wanted to share this very comprehensive resource with you I found on CNN.com about Travel & Leisure. A recent article by Travel & Leisure (see link below) includes mini-reviews and links to what it considers to be the top 25 travel sites.

Since Expedia and Travelocity exploded onto the online travel scene all those years ago, sites have had to evolve in their offerings, as travelers become more and more discerning. ( I still remember the excitement and awe I felt when I booked my first flight online in 2000, from London to Zurich).

There are gazillions of travel sites out there, and not all great! Which is why this article is useful if you've decided to ditch your agent or simply want to see what else is new out there in the world of travel.

Several sites stood out for me. Farecast.com looks at historical price rises and falls, and helps you to decide when to buy a ticket by allowing you to access little charts indicating price variation. If it thinks a price will fall, it will tip you to wait. If you select a price, it will take you straight to the carrier's website you selected. Cruisecritic.com is not a booking site, but a comprehensive one-stop-shop on all things cruise! Xe.net is a great site for doing those quick currency calculations, real-time of course. Farecompare.com does exactly what it says in its URL..and more. Flycheapo.com educates you about all the low-cost carrier airlines in Europe, who flies where, but not the prices. and last, but by no means least, I really like the look and feel of Chowhound.com, a super-information packed website about food, user generated unique recipes, various places across the country and their best edible offerings, videos, blogs, forums etcetera.

Why don't you make up your own mind about which sites you like the most? Have you used some of the sites already? Tell us about them! Good or bad experiences, we want to hear from you here.....

Top 25 Travel Web Sites... according to T&L

Monday, December 3, 2007

Eggnog Cream Cheesecake......

Fannie May, the famous Chicago-based confectioners and the delectable Eli's, of cheesecake fame, have joined forces to bring to us four new sensational cheesecakes. And just in time for the holidays too! The four flavors are: Eggnog Cream, Mint Meltaway, Pixie, and Vanilla Buttercream.

The Fannie May website has tempting photos and descriptions of each. You pay $25 for each and can order online. If you've been lucky enough to try them already, drop me a line to tell me what you though about them. Cannot wait....

Journeyman (NBC)

Time travel anyone? If you like Sci-fi, and if you liked Quantum Leap, chances are you'll have heard of, watch and like NBC's Journeyman. Okay, it might be a premise which has been hashed out in thousands of different forms overs the years, but this show has been pretty decent so far.

If you want to rationalize every plot line, forget it. There will be inconsistencies given that the subject matter is, well, time travel. But the cast is spot on, easy on the eye and likable. The pace is perfect, and the missing pieces are gradually coming together nicely. It is what good entertainment should be.

Rumor has it that the show may be canceled. Ratings have been lower than expected. I got even more depressed imagining what kind of 'reality show' NBC would churn out in its place . Does no one care about an intelligent and decent show any more?

Journeyman is on NBC every Monday at 10/9 central, with the exception of today (the next episode will be shown on Dec 10) Maybe a lot of people don't know about it. So I'm doing my little bit to share it with you out there. You may love it or loathe it, but watch it at least once if you haven't already. The Journeyman website on NBC.com have a blog where you can also post comments in support of the show.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

How to get a complimentary stay at a top hotel

This article is about being assertive and demanding a better service, rather than looking for ways to deceive and get a free stay. The story below is a true incident, and may not elicit the same offer everywhere, but it is worth knowing about.

We had booked a very nice room with a view for a special occasion a few months ago. This was at one of Chicago's top hotels and we were very excited about it. The day arrived and there we were at the hotel reception, relaxed and ready to check in. We noticed that there were a lot of people around, including families and groups of young men. Anyway, we proceeded to check in.

Minutes later, we were told that we would not get the room we had asked for. We were flabbergasted, and asked for a reason. The manager on duty informed us that there was a ball game, and that they had overbooked, and so the room had been allocated to someone else who had turned up earlier. Additionally, the hotel made no guarantees apparently about room allocations.

We understood that, but our reservation online was made for this room, and this room alone. The package was named after the room. How could we not be guaranteed that room? The manager, who was looking quite disheveled and frazzled, probably due to the volume of people around him and our querying, kept repeating himself. He went on to say that he was not the regular manager, who was on vacation. It seemed of no use to carry on the conversation. Extremely disheartened, we took the key, but we got all the details of the regular manager.

We got to our room, several floors below the one we wanted, and facing blocks of concrete: office blocks. It was depressing, but we made the best of it, and departed very early the following morning. Not what we were expecting.


So this is what we did. We carefully drafted an extremely detailed letter addressed to the manager who was on vacation. We also posted a review on Tripadvisor, and included a link in the letter. We emphasized that as professionals, we had come to expect professionalism for services we had paid for, and how this incident had given the hotel a bad reputation for us. We added how we would recount this to friends and colleagues, and recommend that they don't make a reservation there.

We made a copy for the hotel's customer service department, and posted both letters, registered.

A month later, we received a reply from the hotel manager. After exchanging pleasantries and saying sorry for the fact that we were dissatisfied, his letter included a free one night's stay at the hotel. Not in a regular room, but in a bi-level presidential suite. With full access to its Executive Lounge, with complimentary drinks, appetizers, desserts, and a cooked-to-order breakfast.

We were thrilled of course. Not only had we been given, what we considered, a suitable compensation, but we were very happy that our complaint was acknowledged. The stay turned out to be one of the most luxurious ones of our life. The hotel succeeded in changing our mind about it.

So many of us when faced in a similar situation get upset, shrug it off, and fail to do anything concrete about our dissatisfaction. It is time-consuming, but if you were legitimately expecting more for your money, my advice to you is to document your complaint, and let the right people know. Be authoritative. State the time and detail the incidents. Document names. This isn't just true about hotel rooms by the way.

Following this procedure above is not a guarantee in securing a complimentary stay. It is at the discretion of each individual hotel. But it does mean that you would be asserting yourself if you have been genuinely shortchanged, and you may have a chance in getting something back. The opinion of every guest is important to a hotel, especially when it is a well-known name, so use that knowledge wisely.

Do you have a similar experience? Did you get the same results? Share your stories by posting your comments, at this link.

Monday, November 26, 2007

What are the popular shops in London(UK)?

If you are going to visit the UK for the first time, you might be wondering what the main shops or departmental stores are. Here's a quick guide:

High-end
  • John Lewis
  • Harvey Nichols
  • Fenwick
  • Barker's
  • Selfridges
  • Harrods
  • Peter Jones

High/Mid-Range (but excellent quality)
  • Debenhams
  • House of Fraser
  • Marks and Spencer

Budget
  • Primark
  • TK Maxx
  • TJ Hughes
  • BHS

Stylish and Trendy
  • River Island
  • Zara
  • Mango
  • New Look
  • French Connection
  • Oasis
  • Top Shop/Top Man
  • Morgan
  • Jane Norman
  • Monsoon

Great cosmetics , essentials and OTC drugs
  • Superdrug
  • Boots
There are lots of other excellent stores to explore, but this is just a snapshot of the most popular. Caveat: the terms 'high end' and 'mid-range' could be considered subjective. They are used here in relative terms, or how they are generally considered in the UK. In other words, what is considered 'mid-range' in London could be considered in 'high-end' or even 'budget' in another city.

Holiday Shopping in London

Granted, the US dollar is not at its strongest right now, and everyone's flocking in from the UK to the US for this at the moment, but the shopping experience in London is just very satisfying, even if you plan to just window shop. Holiday or Christmas shopping as it is better known as in the UK, can be a competitor sport, but this article is about informing you about alternatives to the popular areas tourists usually go to (i.e. Oxford Street and Knightsbridge).

Okay, here's a bit about the lingo. The British do not generally use the term 'mall'. The rest of this post uses the phrase 'shopping centre' which is essentially the same thing, and is the preferred term in the UK. Also, you'll notice the spelling for 'centre'...

Try:
1) Whiteleys Shopping Centre: Situated just north of Hyde Park on Queensway in the popular Bayswater area, this mall is medium-sized and houses stylish upmarket fashion names such as French Connection and Karen Millen, as well as super-trendy Zara to name but a few, the Spanish fashion chain which is affordable and popular with the 18-35 bracket. There is a food court, a cinema, and countless shops and various ethnic as well as mainstream restaurants in the surrounding area.


2)Whitgift Shopping Centre: If you're not staying in central London but closer to South-East London, then this mall is where you should be. This huge covered shopping center is located in the busy town of Croydon, and has all the big names you expect. There are many dining options, and being here gives you a taste of where some of the real residents of the city shop.


3) Brent Cross Shopping Centre: Located in North London with tons of free parking, this is another gigantic covered mall with all the main heavyweights having a significant presence. It used to be the country's biggest covered mall when it was first built in the 1970s, and it is always being improved in terms of its look and accessibility. Highly popular with the locals.


4) Richmond: I recommend this mainly for the warmer months, and if you are into more high end, unusual and boutique-y shops. Richmond is a beautiful area in South London, and as soon as you exit the train station and walk towards the Thames (should be signposted, or ask anyone around you), you will fall in love with the 'village-within-a-town' feel. I say summer, because there isn't a covered mall as such, and also the riverside here is stunning (see my posts under London). There is a good mix of the popular high street names as well as upmarket boutiques with beautifully tailored clothes.


5) Kensington High Street: Or as the locals say 'High Street Ken' is a beautiful and popular shopping alternative to Oxford Street, located in the posh area of Kensington. A couple of excellent shops are located in a covered section adjoining the station, but the bulk of the shopping is out on the open street. It is very easily accessibly by both the tube and buses. The main departmental stores are all clustered in the area between the western edge of Hyde Park and the tube station. Great departmental stores, boutiques, supermarkets, restaurants and coffee shops, this area has it all.


6) King Street Shopping Centre: Situated in Hammersmith Broadway in West London and minutes from the Hammersmith tube and bus station, this offers a somewhat grittier shopping experience compared to the others mentioned above, but does offer the household names. There is a covered mall called the 'King's Mall' as well as free standing shops along the street. There are several discount shops too so if you are looking for a bargain or more reasonably priced items, you are more likely to find it here, compared to say, High Street Ken. There are some excellent pubs around, and the station also has some smaller shops which are worth exploring.

Given London's excellent public transport network, all these areas are easily accessible from Central London. Doing a quick Google search on each should yield you with directions of how to get there. Or ask at your hotel or local tube station for assistance. Get hold of the free tube and bus maps to help you as well. Bus maps may not be visible at the stands, but if you ask an attendant, they should be able to provide you with one. Bus maps are broken up into regions (central, north west London etc) so check which ones you need.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Traveling to India this winter?

Not only am I going to be in Kolkata for a few days, the city where I grew up, but we have managed to chalk out some time to visit another city. This not might sound like much, but given how big India is, how short previous trips have been, and how easy it is to just be in one place where you have family and will be ritually pampered, this is a big undertaking.

Both of have never been to the South, so that is a strong contender. We have no idea where exactly to go though. There is so much to see. We do want to fit in a beach, so the Keralan coastline is winning so far.

Even though we are both of Indian origin, and I was there since 6, I am overwhelmed about the complicatedness of it all. How to get there, where to stay, is it safe etc etc? We have no family there nor do we speak the languages. I can only imagine how harrowing it must be for someone with no connections to the country whatsoever, who simply wants to explore without confusion.

I recommend getting in touch with a very reputable travel agent who has experience in creating completely inclusive packages to India for the western traveler. While this may be on the expensive side, nothing beats peace of mind. You can also do a web search and contact Indian travel agencies, and see what they offer.

But firstly, start off with a good book, and I recommend Lonely Planet's 12th edition of 'India'. It is a gloriously detailed and enjoyable read of 1236 pages, and you will feel a lot better knowing what this book tells you. Borders stores it for $30, but you can get it for $20 at Amazon.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

We just finished watching 'Stranger Than Fiction', starring Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson, and though weird at first, it turned out to be a watchable and sweet movie.

It's past midnight, so it is Thanksgiving Day already. This is my third Thanksgiving, and we have been invited over to a family friend's do. I am looking forward to the long weekend, catching up with stuff, and planning our trip to India in January. Yes, the last time we were in Kolkata was in 2005, when we got married. We also plan to visit one other place while we're there. Given that it's such a big country, every time we have been back has just been to be with family and friends, and not sight see. We don't know where yet, but that's what's exciting.

Anyway, my point is that I probably won't be blogging for the rest of this week, but I would love for you to hang around and read my previous posts if you're new. If you like what you read, be sure to subscribe and vote using the icons to the right. If you've visited already, drop in again. Comment on my posts so that I can visit your blogs too.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Should we deceive children - Part Deux

This post is largely in response to a well-written comment posted for one of my earlier posts. It got me thinking. My post was about a recently hyped cookbook called 'Deceptively Delicious', in which parents are taught how to sneak in nutritious foods in various disguises into foods kids love.

The author raises an important point in his comment. The book's themes suggests that children avoiding healthy foods is inevitable, and if we can't beat them, join them. But who is in charge? Is parenting the issue here?

I used to teach in a large private school in Chicago last year, and nutrition was on the curriculum. Call me naive, and perhaps its because I am not a parent yet, but I was genuinely disturbed by how many students disclosed that having soda at breakfast was okay now and then, and that having McDonald's for dinner two or three times a week was no big deal. And I was not dealing with disadvantaged kids. Their parents were either professors or doctors. Overworked and ambitious individuals who simply could not, or did not want to make time for family meals. So, is parenting one of the main feeders to the problem of growing childhood obesity and health issues? What do you think?

Time pressures and the decline of family traditions such as a meal together may be contributing factors, and parents may well be to blame. But what about societal and media pressures? Perhaps it was easier when we were growing up or easier still when our parents were kids. We did not have television or the Internet constantly bombarding us with fast food commercials. Burgers at $.99. Buy one get one free soda. These messages are incessant and out there making a mark on young minds. The same medium is then telling them to eat their greens. If you were a 10 year old whose friends were all having pizza parties, which would you pick?

So assuming that we cannot change what media spouts out at us and cannot make time for family meals all the time, can we perhaps get more creative in how we do cook the nutritious fare, in terms of the spices we use and the dishes we cook? No, this is not the same as what the aforementioned book is selling. But maybe we can cook that broccoli a bit differently. It's still broccoli. But perhaps some ginger and salt could liven it up. Or we could roast those peppers with some garlic and serve with a salt-natural yogurt-parsley mix. And it needn't be time consuming. The kids could get involved in the preparation.

After all, given the day and age we live in where everyone has a chance to taste and savor global cuisines, it is probably unfair to expect a child to eat boiled sprouts in all its bare glory. Children's taste buds have never been so challenged before, and now is the time to be in charge, and train those taste buds for the better.

It is okay to go to IHOP or Pizza hut once in a while. But it's all about moderation. Fast food is evolving. Healthy food can evolve too. It is up to us make it interesting for the younger generations. As long as no pureed spinach in brownies is involved.



A fine wine bar in Chicago

Most of Saturday was taken up with chores, so I really wanted to relax and unwind somewhere in Chicago. My husband had been here with friends a good few years ago, and he was impressed. So we decided to check it out.

Webster's is located on a street which lends its name to this cozy and stylish nightspot. It is not pretentious at all. The clientele seem to mainly in the late 20s to 30s bracket. Most of the revelers appear to be close buddies, but this wine bar is romantic enough and couple-friendly.

Get there late (I mean late; we arrived at 11:30) and you might just save yourself the $10 by parking yourself further down the street. There is some construction work going on around the bar right now, but you forget that once you're in.

I just love ambient lighting, and Webster's scores big points for me in this area. The whole places buzzes with intense conversation and Brazilian music in the foreground. It is packed. As there is a (delectable) food menu, there are regular tables, but you can opt to sit at the bar (which we did) and check out the competition.

This bar is serious about its wines. And so it should be, for being Chicago's oldest wine bar. The wine list as extensive as it is distinctive. The Lebanese Red and the Argentinian Chardonnay are some of the current highlights that I really enjoyed. Go for a glass, share a bottle, or select the tasting option. A glass is roughly $7, a tasting portion $3.

The food is exquisite and certainly complement the fine wines on offer. Our selection of olive and fig tapenade on crispy and thinly sliced baguettes, almonds enclosed within succulent dates wrapped in bacon hit the spot. Each of these appetizers was a very reasonable $5. We then proceeded to sample one of their famous cheese plates (of which there are many). By then we had ordered a glass of 20 year-old port which was excellent, and what could go better with port than mature and creamy English Stilton, served with red seedless grapes and a warm mini-baguette? Simply delightful.

Webster's hold one or more tasting sessions every month, and you can get more information form their website. I plan to visit one soon and tell you all about it. In the meantime, if you have been to Webster's or any other wine bar which made an impression on you, why not tell me about it here? I am glad I made this little Chicago discovery, and would love to hear about some other hidden gems from anywhere in the world.




Friday, November 16, 2007

A savvy soup recipe...


This soup recipe has got to be one of the fastest, tastiest, healthiest and simplest ones around. What I'm posting here is a variation of one I read a while ago in a magazine; it is guaranteed to be a crowd-pleaser. Perfect as a starter for an intimate dinner party, or on a cold evening, or just something nutritious for the kids.

Homemade Tomato and Celery Soup

What you need:
  • 1 to 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 lb tomatoes (halved)
  • 3 medium-sized celery sticks (coarsely sliced),
  • 1 clove garlic (thinly sliced)
  • 1 onion (coarsely chopped)
  • 1 fresh green chili pepper and 1 dried red chili pepper (this is optional, but it really enhances the flavor this is recipe without adding heat)
  • 500ml or 18 fl oz vegetable stock
  • 2 oz spaghetti (uncooked)
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Fresh or dried parsley.
Serves 4.
  1. In a large saucepan, add the tomatoes, garlic, chillies and celery to the hot olive oil.
  2. Cover and cook on low for 45 minutes, periodically shaking the saucepan to mix the ingredients.
  3. Once the mixture is pulpy, puree it in a food processor till it is fairly smooth in consistency. Should appear pumpkin/orange in color.
  4. Pour the pureed mixture into the same pan or a clean medium-sized pot.
  5. Add the stock and bring to the boil.
  6. Add the spaghetti, bring back to the boil and cook (uncovered) until the spaghetti is 'al dente'.
  7. Remove from the heat and ladle in to four individual soup bowls.
  8. Season with the freshly ground pepper (there should be no need to add salt as the stock contains a lot of it)
  9. Garnish with fresh or sprinkle dried parsley and serve.

This soup has a bisque-like quality to it, and is incredibly tasty. Not how I did not add any extra salt to the recipe, making it healthier without compromising taste, since the stock cubes have such a high sodium content. Try it and tell me what you think.






Thursday, November 15, 2007

Recipe for the perfect foolproof cookie!

Though I love to cook and indulge in experimental cooking pretty much every week, my dishes tend to be of the savory variety. I am thinking of giving baking a try now, and am on a quest to find a recipe for a delicious oatmeal and cranberry cookie.

Why oatmeal and cranberries? Well, I guess I want to feel less guilty by opting for two ingredients which are healthy and nutritious. And it helps I love both. By the way, I have recently become a huge fan of Ocean Spray's Craisins (sweetened dried cranberries). If you haven't tried it, go for it. They're high in fiber and other nutrients, and is really helping me stay off those candy bars!

I went to Jewel this afternoon and bought some baking staples: all-purpose and self-rising flour, baking powder and soda, and some vanilla essence.

In the past, I have used standard prepared mixes for cookies and cakes, but making cookies from scratch should be fun and healthier. Now that winter seems to be here finally, I can imagine nothing better than sitting in front of the fireplace, with a mug of freshly made coffee, accompanied by some warm and sweet oatmeal cookies.

Are you a baking guru? Do you have tips for the perfect homemade cookie? Then let me know by posting a comment here...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

I am so missing these foods....




They're about to run out and I'm panicking. Judging by the battered packaging, you can tell I have been hanging on to them for dear life but there's not much left!

I'm referring to some of my favorite foods I brought back with me on my last trip to England. Before I moved to Chicago two years ago, I lived in London for 11 years. Full of bittersweet memories, and fortunately, more of them sweeter rather than bitter.

Two of my favorite M&S Cookies are the 'Pistachio and Almond Cookies' and 'Redcurrant Puffs'. You can almost taste the nuts jutting out of the deliciously crumbly cookie. Also, the delicateness of the dollop of redcurrant jam sitting in the middle of the exquisitely fine pastry.....aaaah.

Another quintessentially British product I am missing is Whittard's Spiced Chai Tea (see picture). If you are a fan of Starbucks' Chai Latte, you'll love the convenience of brewing such a cuppa in your own home. The shops back in London are delightful treasure troves selling both traditional and flavored tea, in leaf or tea bags, and cute cups and plates and other items relating to tea.

When I looked at their website, it said that there is a Whittard in Boston. However I couldn't find a web page for this store. Perhaps you've heard about it? Have you visited and bought anything there?

I couldn't help but suppress a smile at the irony - a very British tea store in the heart of the city where they got rid of all that tea a few hundred years ago...

Should we deceive children when it comes to nutrition?

I was on Amazon.com the other day and one of the books being heavily marketed on the home page was Jessica Seinfeld's newly released 'Deceptively Delicious'. I have not seen the physical book nor have I read any reviews, but I did see her on Ms. Seinfeld in a recent TV interview, so I got that it was about hiding the nutritious goodies in foods that children love. In other words, deceiving them to eat foods that are essential for healthy growth.

I have some problems with this concept. Firstly, why should a parent have to do this? Pureed cauliflower in Mac n Cheese? This is time consuming and most parents work full-time? Secondly, are we and should we be sending the message that it's okay not to want to eat vegetables in its wholesome natural selves? Thirdly, is it right to deceive children? Once they find out, and they will, that the broccoli they hate so much is being injected into their pepperoni pizza crust, will they trust their parents about other things? Fourthly, is this pureed vegetable as nutritious compared to the vegetables in other forms, such as steamed, lightly stir- fried or even boiled and seasoned? I should think not, but maybe you can disprove me with facts and figures.

Why not explore different ways of cooking vegetables, adding more aromatic spices and seasoning which make it fun to eat? Why not work on devising creative ways to make kids realize that it need not taste and look boring if cooked differently?

Perhaps Ms. Seinfeld's book has other worthwhile material which is truly going to help the modern day parent to counter the growing obesity rates. But veggies in a Trojan horse of junk food doesn't cut it for me. What do you think? Do you think that the book is a godsend, or just another gimmick which will make no difference? Post your comments...

Monday, November 12, 2007

What is a Zartini?

A very intriguing name indeed. I came across a certain news bite on Sunday's Chicago Tribune written by William Hagemen, which I wanted to share with you guys on this blog.

A 'zartini' was a drink invented at an office party in 2003. The company was and is called the 'Z Factory' and one of its head honchos is called Cary Zartman, hence the name 'zartini' (don't quote me on this; this is my guess as to the origin of the drink's name).

Before I digress further, the company have since 2003 been holding an annual competition to find a winning zartini on an annual basis. This competition had been held internally (company clients, friends etc) until this year!


Visit the link below for more information. You can not only peruse past winning recipes, but also look and try out other recipes entered for previous years. Most importantly, you, the discerning drinker, can get to vote for the 2007 Zartini. The winning recipe will grace the web page in all its glory, as I'm told by the tribune article.

I am very intrigued by the 2004 winner called 'Protein'. Not sure whether I am going to get my daily recommended amounts from this one, but I am going to pretend it will. The deadline is this Thursday, so get voting! Meanwhile, as quoted in the Tribune, "Try every recipe by Thursday and all you'll get is an interesting anecdote for your obituary". So have fun, but responsibly.

Have you ever tried a Zartini, or know someone who has? Post a comment...

Vote for the 2007 Zartini.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Fantastic views from the Sleeping Bear Dunes







I think the photos speak for themselves. We drove about 25 miles west of Traverse City to the famous Sleeping Bear Dunes. We just followed the directions in the navigation system, and looked out keenly for a sign for the Dunes closer to our destination. Finally we came across one marked 'Scenic drive' which turned out to be a road called the 'Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive'. The amber-colored trees hugged the narrow road as we drove on, looking as if it were set on fire on a cool blue day.

You pay $10 for a self-guided tour of the Sleeping Bear Dunes Lakeshore once inside the area. This is valid for about 7 days, so it's a good deal. The tour is divided into 11 or 12 vantage points, as marked on the leaflet given to you at the start of the tour. You drive through these spectacularly windy roads, and stop at the clearly marked points to photograph the stunning scenery, or simply to take it all in. We climbed a dune to be fact-to-face with stark white sands and turquoise waters. Looking at the photo, you could mistakenly think you were in somewhere in the Caribbean.

Picnic benches are placed very strategically, and in most cases give you a view of Lake Michigan across the sandy dunes and multicolored foliage during fall. It is really beautiful. Looking at the pictures, wouldn't you agree?

The Wii got me!

A couple of days ago, I acquired a 'Wii injury'. It had been a while since I played it, and my husband was bragging about his exceptional rating at tennis, so I saw a chance of improving my own and beating him by a huge advantage. I did increase my score by a meager 50 points, at the expense of wrecking my left arm. I know, it's all in the wrist movements; there is no need to wave my arms about like a madwoman! But I guess I got a bit carried away.

To cut a long story short, I did not feel like writing at all. Feeling much better now, I am glad to be back at the keyboard. I'll concentrate on beating him at Scrabble instead.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Fine dining in the Old Mission Peninsula

We just went in to grab a quick bite, but came out very impressed and satisfied.

The Peninsula Grill can be found on M-37 northbound from downtown TC towards the Chateau Chantal or the Old Mission Lighthouse. There are several other eateries and a little market place adjacent to the restaurant, making it easily visible from the main road.

The environment is casual and full of well-heeled locals. Their satiated faces was an indication of what we could expect. Our server was extremely gracious and recommended we try a Michigan brew called Bell's Winter White ale. Amber colored and slightly sweet, the delicious ale got us going. My entree was fresh mussels seeping in garlic and wine, fresh herbs and other such spicy juices. It was splendid! Freshly baked bread came with a butter which had a hint of maple, but I wasn't sure and didn't care as it was so tasty! My husband opted for a hearty fried whitefish sandwich which was devoured in seconds.

The bill came to $35. Definitely worth repeat visits.

The Peninsula Grill: 14091 Center Rd, Traverse City, MI 49686


Since Chateau Chantal's restaurant is closed on Sunday, a complimentary brunch is provided at the intimate Boathouse Restaurant just minutes away from the Peninsula Grill. The environment is very family-oriented, but quietly elegant. The white and shell color scheme is complemented by fine furniture and fittings. Jazz piano plays on the CD and the waitress pours wine for other guests at the well-stocked bar.

As the name suggests, the views are of the beautiful Grand Traverse Bay and surrounding scenery. The multicolored foliage looked very inviting as we gazed out.

Our server again was very well-spoken, and brought out fruit, coffee and juice. My Egg Benedict was perfectly done. The eggs must have been organic because the yolk was so creamy and flavorful. My husband's Belgian Waffles melted in the mouth. Complemented by danish pastry and broiled potatoes with fresh mixed herbs, we were ready to tackle the 6 hour journey back home. Truly remarkable food to sign off our memorable stay at the Chateau. Visit their website for more details.

The Boathouse Restaurant

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

An elegant stay in Traverse City




On Saturday, we left early to check into the much anticipated Chateau Chantal. We drove north of downtown Traverse City on M-37, and within minutes it became a beautiful scenic drive. The foliage changed, the colors were stronger, and the landscape became more rustic and peaceful. Signs indicating 'Honeycrisp Apples', or 'Maple Syrup' dotted the road as we zoomed past. The comparatively higher speed limits in Michigan meant that the windy road trip on the peninsula in the Mazda Miata became all the more thrilling.

We discovered Chateau Chantal by chance. Long live Google. Both Abhijit and I wanted to stay there as soon as we finished surfing the website. It is unique in that it is a working winery with accommodation attached to it. It is located in one of the most picturesque regions of Northern Michigan. The Old Mission Peninsula is flanked by the Grand traverse Bay on other side, so you can imagine the views.

The drive up to the Chateau was spectacular. A windy uphill road took us past the vineyards and up to a commanding mansion. The view from the top was jaw dropping. We were greeted by the receptionist who was very polite, and showed us to our suite, the Behrens Suite, immediately.

Decorated in Old English style, it was exactly what we wanted. Looking at the view from our room and from the front of the Chateau, I felt as if we had been transported to Provence, France. How right we were to reserve this experience for the second night in Michigan. The fall colors from the high altitude were breathtaking. Look at the pictures below to get a feel. All furnishings and fittings were terribly upscale, as were the little touches: the exceedingly romantic jazz CD playing on loop or the luxurious and numerous silky down pillows .

We met and talked to a number of interesting people in the tasting room that night. They all informed us that they had reserved their suites months in advance. I guess we got lucky as we had only just stumbled across the website a couple of days ago.

The cost:$232 per night including taxes. The justification: The elegance and exclusivity. The huge space. The amazing scenery and views. The magnificent tasting session which was open all hours to resident guests. The complimentary glass of wine per night of stay. Access to complimentary gourmet coffee, tea, juice, toast and cereal in the morning. A stunning brunch, included in the stay. If you want to get away from it all in style, choose this. Look at the website for more details. Above is a view from the Chateau, and below, the Chateau itself, and the living room in our suite.
The Chateau Chantal

A modest stay in Traverse City

For our first night, we stayed at the Cherry Tree Condo Hotel. One of the main draws was the extremely off-season reasonable price - $82. TC is a very popular summer and fall destination, so it is a good idea to go just as winter season prices kick in, because you may not get a snowstorm right away, but could enjoy TC's colors at a cheaper price.

The cons were that we did not get a bay-facing room, nor one with a jacuzzi. But it did have a king bed, and we were only staying the night. We had reserved a very upscale suite at another TC venue (see the other TC post) for Saturday, so it made sense for us to stay modestly on Friday, and save the best for last.

After parking at the amply-spaced car park, we made our way to the reception where we were greeted politely. We were told of free drinks at an adjoining room so we decided to unload and have a taste. Also adjoining the reception was a medium-sized communal sitting room which doubled up as a library and had internet access. We also noted that there was a fairly large swimming pool and a hot tub, both of which looked inviting. So we planned the rest of the evening, and decided to have a swim before going to bed.

When we came down for the drinks, we realized that it was a sales trap. Cherry Tree Inn is a condo hotel, so all of the hotel rooms are on sale for those looking for a vacation home. As soon as we entered the room, we saw a wall full of floor plans and a couple of people coming towards us, asking us what we would like to drink. It was too late to turn back, so we decided to taste some cherry wine, a local favorite, and engage in some polite small talk before indicating that we were not interested. The agents were pleasant enough, but we would have appreciated the receptionist telling us that there was a catch to the free drink. As they say, there's no such thing as a free lunch.

The fittings of the room were pretty basic, but it was a good size. What was unique was the view to the swimming pool (see picture). We went down for a swim, but the pool was as cold as Lake Michigan itself. We looked around to see if there was a switch, but gave up and relaxed in the hot tub itself. While in the hot tub, someone from management came in and we relayed the problem to them. Having investigated the problem, we were told that the heater had somehow been turned off, and that they were sorry. If I did not know better, I'd say they were conserving energy since we were the only people down there. So not being able to use the pool was a let-down.

We had a good night's sleep but the complimentary breakfast next morning was not very appetizing at all. Still, the freshly brewed coffee and the thought of checking into our second hotel kept us distracted enough from this. It was only $82 after all, and well worth the price. Here's a view of the swimming pool and the breakfast area from our room.

The drive to Traverse City and Fall colors

So as I said, we planned to visit Northern Michigan last weekend, where neither of us had been before. I inaugurated the flask we had bought by filling it with some hot sweet tea for the road. Armed with other edible goodies, we hit the road at around 10 am on a sunny Friday morning.

According to various fall foliage reports, the color in Michigan was tending towards peak. However, while that was evident along some of I-94 and made for a pleasant drive, leaves had started to drop. But pockets of color indicated how beautiful it must have been a week or two ago. We still loved the drive.

We drove down the I-90, then down the I-94, followed by I-196 towards Grand Rapids, then moving onto US-131 and finally M-37. M-37 is not the fastest of routes, but since it went through the Manistee Forest reserve, we wanted to try it. However, there was not a lot to see, so it is best to stick to the faster US-131 on your way to Traverse City.

We got there around 6 pm ET, leaving at around 10:30 CT, and taking a couple of rest breaks, so it wasn't bad at all. There was still enough daylight to indicate that the fall colors were certainly at its peak in TC (Traverse City). We drove along Front St and towards our hotel with the Grand Traverse Bay to our left. Tired and excited about our mini-break in this pretty little city.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Planning a trip to wine country and other affairs

I'm looking forward to Friday and the weekend. Hubby's taken Friday off, and we're jetting off in the two-seater on a road trip to Traverse City, Michigan. We've reserved two very different types of accommodation for the two nights that we'll be there and have saved the best for last. Don't want to give the game away, but will post about it after we get back.

On a separate note, I was busy collating all my documents in order to transfer a valid visa from an expired passport onto a new passport. To make matters more complicated, the visa is in my maiden name whereas my new passport reflects my married one, so I hope that that will not delay things. We're hoping to visit India this January and I am really stoked about that. Filling the forms was not fun. I am probably going into downtown Chicago tomorrow, to get this over and done with.

Anyway, if you've been to Traverse City, drop me a line. It is about a 6 hour drive from where we are in Northern Illinois, and I expect the fall colors to be quite spectacular.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A bite by the Mississippi and a ski lodge...

You're probably picturing New Orleans at the mention of the mighty river in the title, but I am indeed talking about the Mississippi in the Midwest, in Galena, northwestern Illinois to be exact.

I will be totally honest and say that it's not exactly a picturesque drive towards Galena on the I-90W and the US-20, staring from the northwestern Chicago 'burbs. However, en route to the city of Galena, take the left at the junction of US-20 and IL-84 towards Hanover and then towards Winston, to get to the Chestnut Mountain Resort.

This resort looks like your typical cheesy replica of a Swiss chalet resort, but it's cute enough. It is quite popular with single travelers, couples and families especially during the skiing season, as its perched high enough to make some decent skiing possible. Lodging is available and packages are offered on the website. Lessons are available too. There is a shop and rental facilities in case you forgot your gear.

We were there during early Fall, and there still seemed to be a number of people around. Starving after a long drive, the casual lunchtime menu was just what we needed. And voila, there it was. The restaurant at the inn is by no means a classy joint. In fact, it was very reminiscent of a dark 70's style hunter's lodge, with outdated wooden furniture and fixtures. But the tables by the window had the most beautiful view of the Mississippi. That alone was worth the journey.

The menu features burgers, fries, chicken wings etcetera, and it all really hit the spot. Loved the spicy chicken wings with the ranch dressing. But you have to try the Blue Moon Ale (Bavarian white ale), which was light, punchy and delicious.

Service was swift and amiable. After satiating our appetites, we walked out and around the Inn, to get a better view of the river. The undulating green fields around us would become ski slopes in a few months time. An alpine slide activity was in operation at the time, as was a Mississippi river cruise, but we didn't have the time. Perhaps you took it. Drop me a line if you've been there and have any comments about the place.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Fall road trips

Yesterday was a beautiful day for a drive, so I couldn't help noticing how pretty one of the roads near our place looked. As it winded down, the colors really struck me. I've often thought of taking of a road trip simply to gaze at Fall or 'autumn' colors as we call it in the UK. In fact, we are thinking of taking a trip next weekend, so I'll post a report on that then.

Of course, the places they say are most spectacular during Fall are along the northeastern corridor comprising Vermont and New England to name but a few. Upper Michigan and Wisconsin are also pretty good for exploring if you're nearer to this area. I however would love to spend a long weekend up in Vermont during Fall, locked up in a cozy bed and breakfast somewhere with a view, in front of a roaring fire, with a glass of mulled wine.....

Below is a link to a good website I found which gives excellent updates on Fall color in the popular regions of the country. If you have a story to tell about a memorable Fall trip, let me know via the Comment box.

Fall color updates

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

How to guarantee a good hotel at a great price!

In this post, I will keep it short and sweet, and try to point you in the right direction of ensuring a great hotel at a good price:

  1. Open up multiple tabs on one browser window.
  2. Enter the addresses of the popular websites on each - Expedia, Orbitz, travelocity, tripadvisor etcetera and any others that you may use to book hotels.
  3. Generate searches on each of the above websites using your criteria (the same criteria for easy comparison).
  4. Narrow down the list to the hotels you feel are going to work for you, and compare the prices/package on each tab if offered by multiple sites.
  5. Now search those hotels on Tripadvisor, and see how others have rated it.
  6. If you are happy with what you've read, go to the hotel's website itself, and check if they have the same package you want at a lower price. If so, book with the hotel itself. Otherwise, go ahead with the best-priced travel website offer.
Other methods:
  • Check the local press (travel supplements in newspapers) for any discounts.
  • If you do not really care about the exact location of the hotel, sites such as Hotwire and Priceline may work for you. Visit betterbidding.com which will advise you about possible hotels in a category for your city, and what a reasonable bid may be. I was able to secure a 4 star hotel in London two months ago for $80 on Priceline after consulting with this website - an absolute steal!
Any other tips from readers are most welcome.

Let's exchange links and increase blog traffic!



Note: I reserve the right to refuse links to blogs which are not appropriate or are not authoritative and engaging in look and content. Therefore, please participate only if you feel that your blog deserves a mention!

To exchange links and increase traffic to your blog, follow the instructions carefully (The text was adapted from Stephanie Law's blog shown in the blogroll below):

Copy from here
  1. Get a Technorati account here
  2. Favorite my blog by clicking here
  3. Leave a comment on this post with your blog address (1 address only ) and I will then favorite your blog as well if appropriate. I will try to do this a.s.a.p (my Technorati nickname is mon11uk so you can check)
  4. Copy this post from and including where it says “Copy From Here” until “End Copy” and post in your blog.
  5. Make sure you change the link in step 1 to your own Technorati Favorites Link, which can be obtained from this Technorati page, and also change the Technorati nickname to your own in step 2 - this is important)
  6. Now add a link to your blog to the list below.
  7. Once you have created your post and I receive a pingback, I will add a link to your blog to this list (if appropriate) so that visitors to my blog can see that you are also a Technorati Favourites Exchanger!

Participants in Technorati Favourites Exchange:

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Lake Geneva

Lake Geneva in the state of Wisconsin is about an 80 miles drive northwest of Chicago, and makes for a lovely day trip. We lucked out with the weather when we visited yesterday for the first time. The area just one block north of the lake around Main and Broad St has a number of very eclectic shops and restaurants. There is ample seating and a mini-beach in addition to picnic greens all overlooking the lake. See my post about Kilwin's confectionery, also under the 'Mid West' category.

What would be your favorite day trip from where you are? Drop me a line with your suggestion.
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Mouth-watering confectionery in Wisconsin....

Yesterday being such a fabulous day, we decided to hop into the convertible, top down, and drive up to Lake Geneva in Wisconsin.

Apart from the beautiful lake which I'll blog about later, we discovered a cute and extremely busy little confectionery shop on the main street called Kilwins. Decorated in a style evocative of the 1940s, the brand was actually founded in North Michigan by a couple during the late 1940s.

Their selection of home-style fudge is overwhelming: dark german, maple walnut, chocolate pecan to name but a few. Beautifully wrapped chocolate gift boxes adorn one of the walls. Raspberry creams, cherry cordials, almond toffee crunch...the list goes on. Then there's the ice-cream corner. Rum-raisin, Lake Geneva mud, pumpkin seem to be some of the most requested flavors while we were there. It was very busy indeed.

A pound of fudge costs about $13 but is totally worth it. The attendant packed in a couple of knives for us to cut the fudge with.

We bagged a bench with a view and like children, opened the box as fast as we could. And savored the soft and sweet fudge as we gazed at the lake....

Maybe you know of similarly original and quality confectioners across the country that you have fallen in love with? Drop in a comment and let me know.

Kilwins.com will give you more information about stores nationwide.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

How to score tickets to Wimbledon?

Where you love tennis or not, this is an experience in itself. If seeking Britishness is what you're after on your next trip to Blighty, this is the place. As you may know, it takes place during June and July, and if you're lucky, you may even get a sunny day or two. No, it needn't cost an arm and a leg. Another popular misconception about London.

What you have to have is a willingness to line up for a while. About 5 hours, maybe 6. Your chances are higher earlier in the tournament and on a weekday. I have managed to be at Wimbledon and see great matches for 5 years, and cannot wait to get back. If you get there really early, the box office may offer you tickets to Center court and Court No 1; otherwise just the ground pass.

But don't knock the ground pass just yet - apart from Center and No 1, it offers you access to all other courts, and early in the week, you're bound to see some big names at the smaller courts. The cost is between 5 and 20 pounds, depending on the day of the week and time of entry - check the Wimbledon website for more on this. A pretty good deal.

Also, being in the line is part of the experience. Everyone's there for the same thing. People of all nationalities feel bonded because of this common goal. There are mobile hot dog and burger stands, kids selling the paper and Wimbledon T-shirts, policemen and volunteers sharing good-natured banter with the people, and groups playing frisbee when the line comes to stand still.

I believe that they open the gates around 10 or 11, so after that, the line moves along nicely.

So, if you're on a shoestring budget (and especially as an American feeling the pinch of the weak dollar), here's what you do:

1)Make sure you're in London during Wimbledon!
2) Take cash with you - I'm not sure if the ticket office accept credit cards.
3)Get there on a weekday, and around 5 am - YES, 5 am. Believe me, there will be about five thousand people before you still, but you will have a good chance.
4)Have fun!

Check their website as well for more details. The nearest tube station is Southfields, zone 3.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

When in Vienna....


Do visit the stunning monastery in Melk, about an hour's drive west of Vienna. Ask about the Vienna Sightseeing company, who have a tour of the Wachau valley surrounding the formidable Danube.

The tour takes you from your hotel (a complimentary ride) to a central point from which you board a luxury coach with the appropriate language. After driving through some grittier parts of the city and the unremarkable highway, you suddenly find yourself in stunning Austrian countryside, meandering through narrow windy roads alongside the Danube. A little later, you see vineyards and pretty cottages, while the river flows to your left. It's beautiful.

What I also liked about the tour is that it stopped at a place called Spitz. from where we embarked upon an idyllic Danube cruise to Melk.

If you know nothing about the monastery in Melk like me, or had simply seen pictures of it, you will be glad you came. It is grand and demure at the same time. The approach to it may be touristy and overpopulated, but once you enter the courtyards approaching the monastery, you will be struck by the commanding facade and the quietness.

The monastery was established in the 11th century and the interior is just as breathtaking as the exterior. Ceiling paintings are almost Michelangelo-like, and you can almost visualize Benedictine monks in their flowing robes walking the sparse and long hallways.

The view of town of Melk from the abbey is stunning as well. I was mortified that the batteries in my camera had run of out charge (moral: take your camera charger on trips and USE it!) but I managed to get a couple of pictures. A great excuse to go again.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Vienna's sweet treat

Who would have thought that a 19th century recipe for a cake would still be causing such a stir on the streets of Vienna?

This August, I tasted the magic that so many people had been telling me about. "Oh so you'll be in Vienna? You have to try the Sacher Torte." I found that while this delectable treat was served at many of Vienna's restaurants and cafes, the 'original' and the version that was recommended by most was the torte served at the Hotel Sacher itself, who own the trademarked recipe (the son of the recipe's creator built this exquisite luxury hotel).

This cake is more than just a chocolate cake. What is heavenly in each mouthful is the happy marriage of apricot jam and moist rich spongy chocolate. And a spoonful of sinfully creamy whipped cream helps too. If you want to taste the Sacher Torte in Vienna, I recommend you do it nowhere but the Hotel Sacher itself. When you enter the cafe, you do not see the hotel in all its grandeur, but you certainly get a sense of it. Service is fairly swift. There is most certainly going to be a long line of tourists outside the entrance of the cafe, but it moves along nicely. The lively atmosphere surrounding the cafe also helps to while away the waiting time.

A menu is posted at the entrance, tempting and confusing you at the same time, with its array of sacher tortes. Go only for the original version and team it up with a coffee. While the accommodation and a full scale meal might be obscenely expensive at the Sacher, it is worth paying a few dollars to savor the experience of having one of Vienna's much loved creations in a five-star setting. To whet your appetite, here's a picture taken during our recent visit. Notice the chocolate seal, which signifies it is the original we were about to devour.