Cuba Packing Essentials

As I gear up to live in Cuba for the next month I decided it would be good to share my packing essentials with anyone that may be traveling this summer! Cuba is unlike any other country, and this packing list caters to what one specifically needs to travel to the tropical island. However, this list can be easily modified to work well for most summer vacations! It also includes several of my favorite beauty products that help me get through the hot summer months. I have compiled this list after doing a lot of research (and a lot of bargain shopping)… Enjoy!

Cuba is a city for walking, so comfortable walking shoes and an easy-to-carry bag are essentials that top this list.IMG_5493.JPG I love this blood orange nylon backpack from Rebecca Minkoff because it is light weight, easy to clean, and has several compartments to keep valuables safe and carry all of the necessities! I snagged my red bag during a sample sale, but similar versions can be found here. As for comfortable walking shoes, I will be wearing my Born August Flat sandals. I love that Born keeps comfortable sandals stylish and light weight. They have several great options available. A packable sun hat and summer scarf is also in my bag, since I will be spending plenty of time in the sun and will need protection.

Layers are the key to a perfectly packed wardrobe when it comes to Cuba. The days are hot but nights can sometimes be breezy. I will be packing my favorite light weight shorts, plenty of plain t-shirts and a light chambray shirt to throw over top of things.

I have been told that Cubans dress to impress when going out in Havana. I will be bringing two breezy-midi dresses as dressier options for my trip! The loose dresses will be perfect for those 80 degree evenings.

The rest of my bag is packed with the typical travel essentials like jeans, sneakers, bathings suits, and a more casual dress.

As far as beauty essentials, it is important to bring whatever you will need to Cuba, since your options are limited and more expensive once there. This includes shampoos, soaps, and all basic toiletries.

These beauty items are my tried and true essentials that are my must-haves for any summer vacation! Mary Kay Time Wise moisturizer provides the perfect amount of moisture without feeling oily during the 90 degree days. I layer that with my makeup and use the Supergoop setting spray to finish off my daily look. This setting spray is my must-have because it contains SPF 50 for ultimate sun protection – and even better, it has rosemary to help keep a clear complexion! IMG_5492I am usually sensitive to most sunscreens on my face, but this one has worked wonderfully. It Cosmetics’ ‘Je Ne Sais Quoi’ lipstick doubles as the perfect pink and moisturizing lip balm all in one. I am also a huge fan of Hawaiian Tropic sun products! The Hawaiian Tropic Silk Hydration sunscreen and after sun lotions will both be in my bag. I love that they keep my skin hydrated without leaving a greasy feeling. Finally, my Paul Mitchell Marula Oil. This hair product works wonders as it treats, conditions, and styles all in one. A little in my damp hair makes all the difference and helps protect from summer damage and frizziness. It also makes my hair much more manageable when going natural, which will be great for on-the-go days in Cuba. I can’t travel without it!

I hope this packing list helps during your summer adventurs or trip to Cuba! Feel free to comment with any specific packing questions! 

Saturday brunch at The Plaid Apron

Nestled within a small neighborhood off of Kingston Pike, The Plaid Apron brings local Knoxvillians together for farm to table dishes inspired by what is in season. Recently, the restaurant took a short break to renovate the space and redesign the menu. The restaurant stayed true to its original concept, offering meals that remind you of a warm homemade dish but surprise you with refined flavor combinations. The affordable menu incorporates regionally sourced ingredients like Circle V eggs and Cruze Farm’s dairy products – all incredibly fresh. The new menu still offers some of the old menu’s classics like the tomato soup and artisanal grilled cheese.

I decided to stop in for the new weekend brunch offerings and check out the new renovations. The space has been beautifully redesigned into a sleek open dining area that also includes a bakery counter. The restaurant was filled with customers ordering dishes and reading local papers; the local neighborhood vibe made the new Plaid Apron just as cozy as it once was.

IMG_4961I began with a Cruze Farm’s milk cappuccino as I perused the menu. I had trouble deciding what to order, since everything sounded delicious and every dish that passed looked excellent. The house made sourdough french toast was my original choice, but I went with the veggie and grain plate as I was eager to try the duck egg. The friendly waiter also advised that this dish was packed with flavor. The base of the dish included sorghum, asparagus, oyster mushrooms, and red onion topped with goat cheese fondue and poached duck egg. The dish tasted fantastic. I was a little hesitant at first since some grain and veggie dishes can lack flavor. This one did not! The goat cheese fondue under the perfectly runny poached duck egg created a decadent sauce to cover the fresh salted vegetables and sorghum. The combination of the flavors created the perfect warm dish for a rainy Saturday brunch.

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After finishing my brunch meal I needed something sweet, so I stopped by the bakery counter to pic up an oatmeal cookie. The oatmeal craisin cookie was perfectly moist and chewy – a perfect sweet end note to the meal.

I enjoyed the original Plaid Apron, but I love the new renovations and menu. As always, the staff is incredibly friendly, and it feels great supporting the local small business and growers. You truly cannot go wrong when picking a meal because everything is carefully prepared and ingredients are thoughtfully sourced. This spot is the perfect neighborhood restaurant with unique dishes, and it is perfect for any occasion from date night to family dinner. The Plaid Apron’s delicious dishes and friendly atmosphere will keep you coming back for more.

 

Hyppo Pops: The perfect summer treat

 

Blackberry goat cheese, cantaloupe black pepper, and chipotle peach are just a few of the unique and incredible flavors that appear on the long menu at The Hyppo gourmet ice pop shop. Since opening its doors in St. Augustine, Florida back in 2010, The Hyppo has expanded to nine shops across Florida in St. Augustine, Jacksonville, Gainesville, St. Petersburg, and Tampa. The Hyppo also has ‘pop peddlers’ that make appearances at events with ice pop carts and a few ice pop freezers in select stores.IMG_7218

A Hyppo pop makes the perfect treat for those hot 90 degree Florida summer days. The best part is the pops are 100 percent all natural containing only fresh non-GMO fruit, fruit juices, rBST free dairy, and fresh herbs and spices. The flavor combinations are unlike any other. Fear not – they still have traditional pop flavors for those less adventurous eaters. My personal pops preference on a hot summer day is the key lime hand-dipped in dark chocolate! I have never had a pop I didn’t find refreshing and delicious.

The Hyppo locations vary greatly in closing time so be sure to check their website for your nearest store’s closing hours. Also, be sure to ask for a reward stamp card at the checkout counter! Trust me, it won’t take you long to fill up that card for a special reward!

 

Sunspot Shines with New Menu

Located next to the University of Tennessee’s campus on Cumberland Avenue, also known by the local residents as “The Strip,” Sunspot restaurant offers a unique menu with healthy options that boast bold flavors. Recently, the restaurant went through a menu update that, like the previous menu, offers a variety of delicious options for all types of diets. The new menu offers more of a Caribbean and Latin American flare from start to finish with dishes like the mojo pork, adobo salmon, and sweet potato tofu empanadas. The famous mix and match Sunspot tacos stayed on the menu with a new options added like the pulled chicken tinga and fried avocado with queso fresco.

The dessert options also offer a unique take on traditional tropical flavors with dishes like raspberry tres leeches cake, coconut mango flan, and a chocolate chili brownie to finish off a flavorful meal.

If you haven’t been to the bright yellow restaurant, it offers a great outdoor seating area on the rooftop porch and a fun ‘Wine Wednesday’ half price bottle special. The new menu offers a delicious take on Caribbean and Latin American flavors that are perfect for a refreshing summer meal with friends or family while enjoying half price wine as the sun sets over the rooftop porch.

For more on Sunspots’ hours and menu options visit

Market Square to be Transformed into ‘Biscuit Boulevard’

Since 2009 Knoxville, Tennessee has opened its streets to the International Biscuit Festival welcoming bakers, writers, musicians and even biscuit pageant contestants to the summer event. This year, the Southern Food Writing Conference and International Biscuit Festival will take over Knoxville May 19th and 20th.

The weekend will begin with a conference for food writers and the festival itself will kick off with the ‘Biscuit Bash,’ a music filled event allowing the public to meet and greet with food writers from the conference. Food and cocktails will be provided by local restaurants at the bash. Beginning Saturday, ‘Biscuit Boulevard’ and the ‘Biscuit Bazaar’ will set up in the Market Square area of downtown Knoxville. The boulevard event will allow festival attendees to purchase tickets and sample five different biscuits. Taste testers will then be allowed to vote for a ‘people’s choice’ biscuit winner. The bazaar will allow biscuit lovers to view and try out biscuit gadgets and products to help with at-home biscuit baking.

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Photo courtesy of the International Biscuit Festival on Instagram // @biscuitfest

Sweet or savory, fluffy or dense, the International Biscuit Festival will offer biscuit bakers and lovers the ultimate event to showcase and taste biscuits of all varieties. The location in Market Square will allow plenty of easy parking opportunities in free lots and street spots around the downtown area. The location should also allow locals and travelers to enjoy the warm May weather while biting into a fresh biscuit.

More information on tickets and times of the event can be found by visiting http://www.biscuitfest.com.

Lunch with a Purpose

The Brown Bag restaurant located in Knoxville (Hardin Valley and Downtown) and Nashville gives customers lunch with a purpose. The purchase of healthy and freshly made meals support the restaurant’s mission to provide meals free of charge to local residents in times of need. 

The meals at the Brown Bag are nothing short of excellent. An entree and two sides will cost around $9.00 and is served with large portions. The grilled chicken and grilled steak were especially delicious and tender. Seasonal salads using premium ingredients like fresh fruit and kale are offered as sides and will over flow your plate. Fresh mashed potatoes and grilled vegetable can also be chosen as side options. While I visited, the $2 tubs of banana pudding flew off the shelf. So if you were contemplating dessert at the checkout counter, grab one while you can! 


This restaurant is often packed at the lunch hour and also offers great deals on catering or family trays. Each location is open until 2 pm in order to provide meals afterward for those in need. 

It was so refreshing to be served such a delicious and healthy meal that served a bigger purpose in the community. 

Gourmet Donut Shops on the Rise in Knoxville, TN

In the last two years Knoxville, Tennessee has become home to multiple gourmet donut shops serving up hot fried dough covered with unique icing and toppings. Each shop offers a unique batter, donut type, and toppings list. Here is a rundown of what you need to know about each shop before choosing where to buy your next dozen donuts:

  1. Makers Donuts

Started by Sean and Sara Alsobrooks, Makers Donuts occupies a cozy brick building adjacent to Remedy Coffee on Tyson Street in the Old City District. At almost any point during opening hours, a line snakes around the counter and outside the door. The donuts are all hand fried, iced, and topped in-house. The flavor line up varies week to week with a few staples regularly making an appearance like chocolate ganache with sea salt, churro, vanilla, and blueberry bourbon. Seasonal and locally sourced ingredient themed flavors also appear on the menu such as Cruze Dairy Farm’s berries and cream, key lime pie, and pumpkin spice. The weekly flavor line up can be found on the Makers Donuts’ social media accounts or weekly email subscription.  Makers is open from 7 am to midnight Friday and Saturday and Thursday and Sunday from 7 am to 1 pm.

The verdict: My personal favorite, Makers’ warm donuts offer the perfect crunch on the outside while staying fluffy and light on the inside. The donuts alone are delicious, but the toppings and flavor combinations make this shop a big hit. The flavors are well developed, intense, and not too sweet. The staff always treats you like family and works hard to keep the donut line up new and exciting, while maintaining top quality. Plenty of parking and a great coffee shop next door serve as an added bonus. My favorite part – I get to support local economy while eating a unique donut flavor you often cannot find anywhere else. Run, don’t walk, when the blueberry bourbon and key lime pie donuts are on the menu.

2. Duck Donuts

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Duck Donut shops can be found all over the Eastern side of the United States and established itself in Knoxville just a few months ago on Kingston Pike. The chain focuses on customizable donuts that allow customers to mix and match icing flavors wth toppings and drizzles. Warm donuts are iced on site in front of the customers to ensure total satisfaction and quality. The thick cake donuts can be topped with almost anything you can think of from shredded coconut to bacon. The shop has been overwhelmed with customers since its opening and varies in hours each day. Monday the shop is open from 6 am – 3pm, Tuesday through Thursday 6 am – 7pm, Friday and Saturday 6 am – 8 pm, and Sunday 8 am – 8 pm.

The verdict: Warm Duck Donuts customized to your liking are the ultimate sweet treat, but they are very rich and can only be eaten in small portions. The customizable aspect makes the process fun and more personal. However, it also requires patience as the customizable donuts take longer to prepare. The first experience can be a little chaotic as the small shop packs in plenty of customers, and the options can take a little while to sort through. Overall, this is a great place to take younger kids and a perfect dessert treat for after dinner.

3. Status Dough

Status Dough is the newest player to the game, recently opening its doors less than a month ago on Kingston Pike. The donut shop offers a variety of treats like cake and old fashioned donuts, apple fritters, and cinnamon buns. The massive donuts offer unique batter mix-ins and rich toppings.  Espresso beverages are also available and hand made on site. The store currently holds hours from 8 am – 4 pm each day, but often sell out of donuts before the posted closing time.

The verdict: The donuts are the biggest bang for your buck since one is almost too much to eat. The strawberry batter donut is always a commendable menu move in my book, however this one was particularly sweet for my taste. I found the donuts too dry and my least favorite of the three unique shops. Although, I liked how different types of donuts were offered providing something for everyone, even gluten free!

 

Spring Guide: Knoxville

Gloomy days of winter have finally ended and bright tulips, purple blooms on redbud trees, and 70 degree days all mark the beginning of spring time in East Tennessee. There are plenty of great opportunities to get outside again this spring. Here are a few ideas to get you in the spring spirit:

  1. Enjoy an outdoor farmers’ market:

 

 

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East Tennessee offers a variety of fantastic markets from spring to fall. Local vendors sell fresh cut flowers, farm fresh eggs, produce, baked goods, and hand made jewelry. My personal favorite is the Market Square Farmers’ Market every Saturday and Wednesday beginning in May. This market offers rows of local vendors, food trucks, and gourmet ice pop carts, and sits between Market Square’s shops and restaurants, perfect for a Saturday morning out. Other notable markets in the area include the Dixie Lee Market, Oak Ridge Market, Ebenezer Road Market, and Lakeshore Park Market.

2. Paddle, Bike, or Hike at Ijams Nature Center:

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Photo courtesy of outdoorknoxville.com

Ijams center is a nature oasis in the middle of urban Knoxville, Tennessee. A nature lover’s dream, the nature center is home to beautiful rock quarries, nature trails, and a river boardwalk. Ijams offers inexpensive rentals for kayaks, paddle boards, and canoes to take out on the water and enjoy a beautiful spring day. Get there early if you plan to rent sporting gear, as they run out of rentals quickly when the weather is nice. Keep an eye out for fresh water jellyfish that like to make an appearance in Mead’s Quarry Lake. If water activities are not for you, Ijams offers 12 miles of natural surface trails perfect for all levels of hikers and 9 miles of bike trails for beginner to intermediate levels. The nature center is open daily from 7 am – 9 pm.

3. Attend the Rhythm N’ Blooms music festival:

With headliners like Young the Giant, Gogol Bordello, and Dave Barnes, the Rhythm N’ Blooms festival offers plenty of live music during its three day festival April 7-9th. The historic Old City district in Knoxville offers a great location for music and food trucks. The festival offers both weekend and day passes so this event is a perfect way to kick off the spring season.

4. Enjoy food and drinks on the outdoor patio of Balter Beerworks:

Balter Beerworks, located in the Old City district, is the perfect place to grab a refreshing drink and meal while enjoying beautiful spring temperatures. The restaurant offers a patio and beer garden with plenty of pet-friendly patio seating. Happy hour is every Monday – Friday 3-6:30 pm and includes $3 draft beers and $1.50 tacos and sliders. Balter also offers weekend brunch and Friday night live music in the beer garden. The atmosphere is great, the staff is friendly, and the food is excellent. Large portions and fresh regionally sourced ingredients make the dishes great. My recommendation would be the Mediterranean salad with grilled chicken or the potato chip nachos – both are packed with flavor!

HLB: The Perfect Biscuit Spot

About a year ago, after a three hour drive to the city from Hilton Head, I found myself strolling down King Street in downtown Charleston looking for a quick snack spot. At that moment I walked into a narrow shop nestled in a long strip of buildings that smelled like warm salty buttermilk biscuits. This unique shop was Callie’s Hot Little Biscuits, or HLB as the locals call it. Today, HLB resides in both Charleston and Atlanta. My latest road trip back to Tampa routed me through Atlanta, which gave me the perfect excuse to make a quick stop in and grab some hot biscuits.

There are a few things that make Callie’s Hot Little Biscuits different than the typical biscuit. HLB serves up a variety of biscuits, both sweet and savory. The biscuit flavors range from your traditional buttermilk to blackberry to black pepper bacon. Home made accoutrements are also served such as whipped flavored butters, jams, and bacon gravy. The best part is that the biscuits come in smaller portions, perfect for mixing and matching multiple flavors. If you are anything like me, this solves the great sweet vs. savory battle that goes on every time you choose a snack or breakfast meal.

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Cinnamon biscuits are a mix of sweet and savory paired with whipped cinnamon filling. Black pepper and bacon, cheese chive, and plain buttermilk serve the perfect salty bite.

Callie’s HLB are the perfect warm bite – airy on the inside with a perfect buttery crisp top. The biscuits are substantial and will not crumble, while maintaining a delicate fluffiness to them.

Bite size biscuits are not the only offerings at HLB. Full size biscuit sandwiches made with regional ingredients are also a hit. Later in the afternoon, tomato soup biscuit bowls are served up and pimento sandwiches are available freshly grilled to order. Coffee, tea, and juice are also available to sip along with your biscuits.

HLB is the perfect stop for a morning stroll through downtown Charleston, South Carolina. If you are visiting or passing through Atlanta, Georgia you can find HLB in the Virginia Highland area, about 12 minutes off the interstate. Both locations offer quick service, friendly staff, and to-go options!

For those of us that are not on a road trip or within a reasonable driving distance, HLB offers frozen 12-count packs of the classic buttermilk biscuits in gourmet grocery stores like The Fresh Market. Go ahead, grab those car keys and go get some biscuits!

Rainy Day Itinerary: Tampa Bay

Florida is well known for sudden changes in weather and stormy days, which often leaves residents and travelers stuck indoors wondering what to do. Here is my favorite rainy day itinerary for the Tampa Bay area:

  1. Take a tour through the Tampa Museum of Art

The Tampa Museum of Art has an excellent display of pottery and art from the Classical World. My personal favorite displays in the museum were the sports photography and Alex Katz pieces, both of which will be on display throughout April. The Tampa Museum of Art is a great rainy day stop since admission is only $15 a person and free for college students. It also has a parking garage next door for easy parking, which is not always easy to find in Downtown Tampa.

2. Grab Lunch at Oxford Exchange

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Courtesy of Oxford Exchange on Instagram // @oxfordexchange

Rainy days call for a good cappuccino and refreshing lunch. Luckily, OE has mastered the art of both with their Buddy Brew coffee stand and seasonal fresh menu. Grab a book in their book shop and a comfortable seat to enjoy a delicious hand made coffee. Then, take a seat in their exquisite bright dining area to enjoy a great lunch. The clean bright interiors matched with the cozy coffee area make for the perfect rainy day lunch treat.

3. Spend the afternoon at Top Golf

Top Golf is great but also pretty crowded most of the time, which makes it the perfect rainy day activity. Three stories of golfing into color coded holes, great music, and a delicious menu of dishes and desserts makes Top Golf the ultimate outing for friends and families. It is completely covered overhead and each bay has comfortable seating, which allows you to stay dry and away from the rain without being cooped up inside. Top Golf is least crowded mid day and early afternoon, so make sure to golf before prices increase and things get busy in the evening.