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.

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One Tank Trip: Tarpon Springs

A 45 minute drive northwest of Tampa, Florida, Tarpon Springs is home to sponge docks, Greek heritage and unique local shops. The town of almost 24,000 people is the perfect destination for a sunny day trip!

Parking is very easy to find in a lot near the downtown water front area. The shops line the street running parallel to the sponge docks. Once parked, you can stroll the wide sidewalks lined with shops and restaurants. If you are wondering what to eat and where to stop for lunch the answer is pretty obvious. This area was established mainly by Greek immigrants that worked at the sponge docks, so authentic Greek food is the way to go.

Tarpon Springs is filled with wonderful Greek restaurants all having similar menus filled with traditional gyros, spanakopita, dolmades, and of course, baklava. My favorite of the many authentic restaurants that reside in Tarpon Springs is Hellas Bakery & Restaurant. Hella’s menu is best enjoyed family style since the plates are pretty large. A Greek salad is always my first go-to at any Greek restaurant and Hellas does not disappoint. Salty feta and Kalamata olives, creamy Greek potato salad, crisp veggies, and a tangy oil and herb vinaigrette makes this salad delicious and perfect for any warm day. I also recommend the assorted spreads platter – warm fresh pita bread and home made hummus, tzatziki, and feta dips. An order of dolmades, grape leaves filled with rice and ground beef, and spanakopita pie makes for an excellent shared meal for four people.

Once finishing off a family style meal at Hellas, you must your way over to the bakery section to grab a bite of baklava. Layers of filo dough, chopped nuts, and honey make for a sweet ending to the meal. Hellas combines bright flavors with the fresh healthy ingredients of a delicious Mediterranean diet.

After completing lunch at Hellas, a beautiful Florida day lends itself to shopping and sightseeing around the rest of the town. Look all around the area and the waterfront offers views of beautiful birds, sponge boats, and Florida wildlife.

The main street (Dodecanese Boulevard) is home to unique boutiques and sponge shops perfect for picking up hand made soaps, local sponges, and great gifts. Outside of the waterfront area there are several neat antique and home shops including Tampa Bay Salvage, which offers a neat collection of vintage and architectural salvage pieces. Tampa Bay Salvage is a great place for anyone looking to update or decorate a room in their home.

A quick drive to Tarpon Springs unlocks a day of great food, neat shopping, and unique finds – all while being able to enjoy a beautiful day on the water!

The Great Barrier Reef

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef is one of those once-in-a-lifetime events that you put on the bucket list but typically don’t expect to cross off. For me, swimming in open waters and snorkeling were not high on my to-do list. However, I knew I could not pass up this opportunity to see something that may one day die off.

Getting to the GBF should be a bucket list task in itself. In order to snorkel or dive the reef you must depart and boat from one of the two local ports – Cairns or Port Douglas. These small beach towns survive mainly on the tourism cruises and include small airports that host arriving passengers from major Australian cities. We opted to fly into and stay in Cairns to take the Reef Experience snorkel tour. From Sydney the flight was around 2.5 hours.

Our tour started off by departing around 8 am with a breakfast and lunch included in the cost of the tour. We boarded the boat, slipped on a stinger suit and held our fins and masks with expectations running high. Around an hour and a half later we anchored to our first location for snorkeling. The water was deep and from the surface seemed dark, unlike what I imagined it would be like. We jumped in – then the fun began. And by fun, I mean a panic attack in open water trying to decide if the Great Barrier Reef was worth it. It was, and once my breathing regulated I was glad to have made the trek to see the incredible reef.

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We went to two sites to snorkel, both of which were different but beautiful in their own way. Bright corals and tropical fish covered the sea floor with intricate detail and color. It was stunning, and no picture serves the real view justice. We saw several different types of beautiful fish in all sizes swimming in and out of layers in the reef.

Unfortunately, parts of the reef are dying as water temperatures continue to increase and cause organisms to leave the coral rendering it lifeless. But for now what is left is magical. The Great Barrier Reef is the only living creature visible from outer space. I was grateful to the staff aboard who explained the dangers and life of the reef, which led to my appreciation of the beauty in front of my eyes.

If you have the chance, take the extra day to visit the beautiful Great Barrier Reef. It is a once in a lifetime experience that you won’t forget. You may even encounter a reef shark or two like my group did. Be sure to reserve your tour at least a month in advance to ensure your ability to do a guided snorkel or drive.

 

Sydney, Australia

My first impression of Sydney, Australia was that of New York City on steroids with a beach vibe. The CBD (Central Business District) is packed with skyscrapers and busy side walks that mark the hustle and bustle of any major city. Sydney felt much larger and more crowded than New York, Chicago, Atlanta, or any other major city I have visited. Tourists walk amongst business women and men as they make their way around the city. The tourists and locals shop high fashion and often crowd around to view public displays for the holidays. The windows of David Jones were the main attraction around the previous holiday season, which falls in their summer months. Sandals mixed with Santas weren’t anything new to this Floridian girl.

The city had much to offer from delicious restaurants to a cathedral light show and almost anything in between. We stayed at the Hilton downtown in order to walk around the city to explore. The Hilton housed the Glass Brasserie which made for wonderful fresh breakfast each morning during our three day stay.

Our first two days included exploring the surroundings and checking out Christmas displays such as the fun light show at St. Mary’s Cathedral. We arranged to to take the ferry to the Taronga Zoo in order to find out more information about the unique wildlife that Australia has to offer. The cheap high speed ferry allowed us better viewings of the Sydney Opera House and Harbor Bridge! At the zoo we had the incredible opportunity to interact with koalas up close and personal. This was great, but I must warn that you cannot touch the koalas and you must have great self control to keep from hugging the adorable little bears. Although it was an up-charge to get to see the Koalas up close, I would absolutely recommend it, since the free Koala exhibit is very large and can be hard to see. The lemur exhibit was also neat since we were able to walk in the lemur enclosure and see them up close for free! Even if you have been to the zoo before, this one is a great experience if you are looking to understand Australian wildlife!

Unique neighborhoods surround the CBD which made for great markets and delicious eats. One of my favorite stops during my time in the city was at The Rocks Friday Foodie Market! If the words “foodie” and “market” weren’t enough to draw me in, the delicious truffles and beautiful fresh flower bouquets did. The market, which we visited on our second day, was full of friendly vendors that led to streets full of great lunch spots like the Pony Lounge and Dining. Our meal at the Pony Lounge was delicious! I ate the lamb kabobs, which were full of flavor. It was obvious that this trendy area was popular with the young adults. If you have a weekend in the city be sure to check this unique area out.

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Fresh flowers greet market goers as they enter The Rocks Friday Foodie Market.

Our final day in the city we purchased tickets for the hop-on and hop-off double decker bus that took us out to Bondi Beach and the Bondi to Coogee walk. Like the postcards, Bondi was full of tourists and locals looking for a spot to sun-bathe. We opted for a walk instead of a surf as the waves were a bit rough that day, which led us to the Bondi to Coogee walk. The coastal walk in full runs about 7.6 miles, but you can turn around at any point to make your way back. A great workout and beautiful coastal walk, this path leads you past the famous Icebergs Club and over crashing cliffs. It serves as a great way to see the famous Bondi beach!

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Swimmers lap the pool at the Bondi Icebergs Club, which marks the start of the Bondi to Coogee walking path.

After spending your days walking and shopping, finding restaurants in Sydney can be a little tricky. Brunch and lunch takes priority over the traditional dinner meal here in the United States. Often, restaurants and shops close in the early afternoon to allow employees to spend time with their families. Not only does the early day tradition make eating meals somewhat difficult, finding restaurants does as well. Sydney has an abundance of great restaurants that cannot be beat. However, many of them are tucked hidden within the city. A favorite of mine from the trip, Graffiti, was tucked within a larger building called the Galleries off of a side street. Graffiti was open for dinner, and it was good. I opted for the goat cheese croquettes and seared tuna tacos for my meal, both were excellent. I wish I could remember all of the ingredients in the decadent croquettes so I could continue to make them. They were delightful.

The three days in Sydney were fabulous and honestly the perfect amount of time if traveling around the country. The brunch dishes will make your mouth water, the views and attractions are incredible, and the city is so large you should never run out of things to do.

South Island, New Zealand

Following our adventures in Rotorua and Waitomo my travel partners and I headed back to Auckland to catch an early morning (and very bumpy) flight to Queenstown in the South Island.

Queenstown and the surrounding areas are home to scenic mountain ranges (including the Southern Alps), fiords, and beautiful blue bodies of water. It is easily one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

Upon arriving in Queenstown we picked up a rental car and headed to Mt. Cook National Park to attempt a hike on the Hooker Valley Track. The drive to Mt. Cook is around two and a half hours, and proved to be worth every single minute. The drive took us past lavender fields, sparkling blue lake views, and even some sheep crossings.

Unfortunately the Southern Alps often trap storms, so while your drive there may look clear, once you make it to the mountains it may be very rainy. Our arrival to Mt. Cook proved just that. We checked out the information center but decided to head to our AirBnB  in Twizel and try the hike the following morning hoping for better weather.

The AirBnB in Twizel was our best BnB location on the trip, sitting on a beautiful piece of land that reminded me of lush areas of the Pacific Northwest. Our friendly hosts lived nearby on the property and recommended that we try Poppies Café for dinner.

At Poppies, although hesitant, I decided to give lamb a try. The lamb dish, which was comprised of locally sourced mustard encrusted lamb, beetroot, and potato cake, was excellent. It was easy to see why the dish had won so many local awards. If I could sum up the flavors of the region into a locally sourced dish it would be this one. The lamb was tender and flavorful and a must try for anyone that visits the area. Thank you Philipa and Blair for the recommendation!

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The next morning we headed for Mt. Cook in order to tackle the Hooker Valley Track once more. On arrival we were caught in a shower storm but decided to wait it out and hope for a break. Within 30 minutes the showers ended and gave us just enough time to make a decent dent in the track. The Hooker Valley Track sits at the base of Mt. Cook in the Southern Alps and takes around three hours to the end and back to the parking area. It gives views to the incredible snow capped mountains and includes bridges suspended over rushing glacier waters. We were able to do about two of the three hours of the track before more rain clouds came rolling in. I am still trying to find an accurate description for the type of beauty the scenery displayed, but I am not so sure it can be put into words that would do it any justice. This hike was the highlight of my time in New Zealand. I think the pictures speak for themselves.

After exploring the incredible Mt. Cook National Park we hopped in the car back to Queenstown for the evening and following day. It should also be noted that all throughout this region adventure seekers are able to find great places for bungee jumping and skydiving. For me, the walk over the two suspension bridges was plenty of adrenaline for the day.

We again stayed at an AirBnB in Queenstown that overlooked the beautiful water and was a short five-minute drive to the cute wharf area in the middle of the downtown. This area is great to park and walk around and has a wide variety of dinner options to choose from. We settled for Coalfire, an upscale barbecue restaurant. I ordered the brisket, which was accompanied by the mac and cheese, house pickled veggies, and slaw. The brisket and slaw were a little dry for my taste, but the rich mac and cheese was creamy and full of a decadent three-cheese blend. It goes on my list for best mac and cheese I have ever had, which is pretty competitive. It was so rich in fact, that it could probably be its own meal.

As if the mac and cheese was not enough, we stopped at a local gelato shop for a dessert. Let’s just say the gelato was so good we went back again the next night. They had several great flavor options and the shop was conveniently located next to a grassy area near the water where we sat to eat the gelato. One of the many things I love about New Zealand is that the days in the summer are very long and allow you to soak in the great views well into the evening.

The next morning we headed back to the airport to catch a small eight-passenger plane to Milford Sound where we then took a scenic boat ride. This is another attraction that needs to be booked in advance since it is very popular with tourists. If you are staying in Queenstown there are two main ways to get to Milford Sound: bus or small plane. If you take the bus it is about 12 hours round-trip including the two-hour boat tour. If you fly over the mountains it is about four hours. Both are scenic, but I highly suggest flying as I found the flight better than the actual Milford Sound boat tour. The plane takes you over scenic snow capped mountains ranges and really gives you a gorgeous aerial view of the Fiordland National Park. The flight also allows you to view glaciers, waterfalls, and mountain top lakes.

The boat tour of Milford Sound was very beautiful, but compared to what we had previously seen hiking Mt. Cook and flying over the beautiful mountains it did not really stand out. A note about Milford Sound – it rains almost 200 days of the year in that area so tours can be very hit or miss. Make sure to plan accordingly and allow extra time in case your tour needs to be rescheduled or have a back up plan in place. Luckily, for the most part weather was on our side during this trip and we were able to fly and tour the sound.

 

The next morning we headed to Sydney, Australia. More on that later…

 

 

Glow Worms and Geysers

The second day following my arrival in New Zealand I ventured to Rotorua with my travel companions, which was a three-hour scenic drive from Auckland. Rotorua is home to several attractions that give the history of the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. The town is also built on a geothermal valley, and the many geysers and mud pools in the area also make for great attractions.

Rotorua is not a very large town, but it boasts being the most visited tourist attraction on the North Island, so be sure to book your stay ahead of time as sleeping accommodations get filled quickly. Like most of New Zealand, the climate in Rotorua changes rapidly so bring layers and always carry a light jacket (even in the summer months).

We chose to stay in an AirBnB outside of town on a large lake that was very scenic, peaceful, and even offered a small café to dine in. Later that first day we hit the town center to get a feel for the area and decide what local tour we would like to do. We settled on the Te Puia tour, which included highlights of Maori culture, geysers, a look at the mud pools, and sights of the native Kiwi bird.

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Te Puia’s Pohutu sits in the center of the Whakarewarewa geothermal valley. The two large geysers sit side-by-side and go off almost every 45 minutes.

A ticket to the Te Puia center includes a guided tour, or you can do a self-guided tour around the easy to navigate park. We opted for the one-hour guided tour that was led by native Maori guide, Milly. The one-hour tour was a great way to get a look at the geothermal geysers and mud pools, especially if you have never seen them. The main geyser can be seen in action about every 45 minutes. The tour also included a brief overview of Maori culture and history.  A dark habitat room housed a nocturnal native Kiwi bird. Overall, the tour was a great way to learn about Maori culture and Rotorua’s geothermal landscape. I will say that I found the overview too brief and would have liked to learn more about the indigenous people and their culture.

After our tour of Te Puia we headed back to the AirBnB and relaxed poolside before dinner. Dinner for the evening was at the local café, where I had the cranberry chicken pizza with Brie – simple and delicious!

The following day we headed on a scenic drive to Waitomo to visit the glowworm caves. The drive to Waitomo ends up being around two hours of very curvy isolated roads so do not forget to fill up on gas before leaving Rotorua.

Although glowworms can be found all over New Zealand, in caves and throughout the bush, they are best seen in the Waitomo caves. The worms glow as a sign of hunger and create thin threads to catch insects to eat, similar to a spider. The caves are home to thousands of worms and the dark ceilings help you to see them easily, whereas if you were to do a bush night walk you may only find a few worms here and there. Unfortunately, you can only do the caves through guided tours (walking, tubing, or boating) and they are a major attraction, so also book this tour in advance. Make sure to research your options before booking as some tours focus more on the cave formations and may not have the best glowworm viewings. Also, while tubing seems like a neat option the tubes are about the size of a lifesaver and require a lot of climbing through small cave formations in the dark… So maybe give that a serious thought before booking.

Unfortunately I speak from experience, as we made the mistake of not booking the tour ahead of time so the options were limited. My travel companions and I had already driven out there and many of the available tours did not have openings for a few more hours. Luckily, right before giving up on the glowworms, we stumbled upon a CaveWorld tour and within ten minutes we were on the way to the Footwhistle cave. A local family operates the company after they discovered the Footwhistle cave had glowworms when doing a land survey.

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A look back at the entrance to the cave. A view of a small waterfall and two steep flights of steps lead into the entrance.

Our very knowledgeable and friendly guide, Ross, led us on our tour of the privately owned cave. Lucky for us, we received a private tour since we were the only visitors in the specific time slot. That was a nice plus since we were able to view the caves and worms at our own pace. Ross filled us in on the history of the cave, the local plants and animals, and also detailed information on the glowworms.

The CaveWorld tour was excellent and I would highly recommend this specific tour to anyone that visits the area. The cave had hundreds of glowworms hanging from the ceilings to view.  Ross gave us an excellent tour full of facts, humor, and even brewed us locally sourced tea at the end. While our tour ended up being private, this particular company limits the group numbers on all of its glowworm tours. Ross really added something special to the tour by presenting his knowledge of the area and also teaching us more about the Maori culture in Waitomo. Unlike most of the tours, this one also allows the use of cameras. Unfortunately, the caves are so dark and the worms’ glow is so faint to a camera that it is very difficult to capture photos of them.

And for those of you that may be wondering – no, the glowworms cannot not fall off of the ceiling onto you. For some reason, I was the only person on the tour that seemed worried about that happening.

To view images or gather more information on the glowworms found in New Zealand visit: http://www.backpackerguide.nz/6-places-see-glowworms-new-zealand/

 

 

 

 

 

48 Hours in Auckland

After 20 hours and three flights (brutal, but so worth it) I found myself at the start of a two week journey through New Zealand and Australia.

The trip started and will end in Auckland, which is located in the North Island. I was told not to expect much more than the typical bustling working city. I was delighted and surprised to really enjoy it, even on the rainy days.

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Auckland and the surrounding islands combine some of the best elements of many places that I have visited. The buildings are close and compact and sit on hills edging the water that is home to hundreds of sail boats and ferries, much like Seattle, Washington. It even has the Sky Tower, similar to the Space Needle. The clean streets are intertwined with green parks, much like Portland, Oregon. The surrounding islands are outlined in crashing cliffs like those in Ireland, and covered in tropical green trees like those found in Hawaii. Like Ireland, Portland, and Seattle, the overcast days covered the city in a blanket of mist.

The restaurants are tucked away in city corners and along the Princes Wharf, and the nightlife at local bars seems to be lively with young professionals on any given night.

My first day in the city had no agenda, so I walked along the water looking for a place to grab something to eat. I made my way to a trendy area further into the city, the Britomart. The Britomart had a West-Coast vibe with unique  local restaurants and high end shops. Professionals took their lunch break at the various healthy artisan restaurants, ladies walked past with shopping bags, and friends gathered on bean bags in a nearby park.

The Store is based mainly on local Kiwi food, a delicious cuisine consisting of locally sourced food created into healthy dishes. Fresh pressed juices, coffee with buffalo or macadamia milk (unfortunately I did not see the milk options until after ordering), and fresh dishes filled the menu. I ordered the ricotta hot cakes with green tea and lemon curd. Adorned with delicate flowers and artistically designed, the plate was almost too pretty to eat… almost.

Run, don’t walk off of the plane straight to The Store. It is that good.

My only negative comment is that they close in the afternoon! Good news, their sister restaurant, Ortolana, next door is open for dinner. Also, if you cannot stay for a full meal be sure to grab a snack at their to-go counter.

After grabbing brunch I walked around to get a feel for the city. I made sure to stop by the Nespresso shop where you can sample free espresso (yes – free espresso!!) I opted for the chocolate and berry blend espressos, which were equally delicious.

Auckland does not have a wide variety of tourist attractions, but the restaurants and city life are great to explore and immerse yourself in for a couple of days. I really enjoyed the “City of Sails.”

For dinner I tried DeBrett’s Kitchen, another gem I found while researching the trip. The restaurant is tucked down a side street in the DeBrett Hotel, near the University of Auckland. Although it is very hard to find, it is worth the effort. Again with local Kiwi cuisine, the food is fresh and delicious. I had spinach ricotta ravioli topped with crusty parmesan cheese. Well worth the walk from Princes Wharf!

After the long flights and rainy weather I called it a night.

The following day I took the ferry for a 30 minute ride over to Waiheke Island. It was hard to believe that an island so close to the city could be so drastically different. Waiheke boasts a tropical village vibe. It is best known for the many vineyards that rest on the hills of the island.

Before my trip I booked a small group food and wine tour of Waiheke, which was led by David, a Waiheke local for over 20 years. The tour began with a visit to a local farm that produced olive oil. We tasted various award winning oils and local Manuka honey, which were light and flavorful.

Next, we visited our first winery, Thomas’s Bach, and tasted a few wines paired with local raw oysters. The wine was decent, but the view and local food was the real treat. The dining room opened to beautiful green rolling hills lined with grape vines.

We later made our way to the second winery, Peacock Sky, which incorporated small pairings with each wine. This was the least favorite of the three wineries we visited, but still good. Finally, we stopped at Stoney Ridge for more wine and lunch. This was by far the best winery stop and we were given lunch, which was a delectable assortment of locally sourced dips, cheeses, and charcuterie items.

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Freshly harvested oysters accompanied our wine tastings at Thomas’s Bach.

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The view from the Thomas’s Bach restaurant and tasting area. The winery sits atop one of the highest points on the island allowing you to see the beautiful beaches and vineyards.

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For lunch we were served a delicious assortment of fresh cheese and charcuterie tastings which ended up being the best part of the tour.

I would highly recommend the food and wine tour. If you cannot schedule time for that, given it is a good half day at the least, I would absolutely take the ferry to Waiheke to see the tropical village town. The tour was great, but our local guide David really made it special offering a great history and insight to the island’s culture. We ended the day on Waiheke with some hand made gelato, per David’s suggestion.

If you only have a day or two in Auckland be sure to ferry over to Waiheke. Also make sure to stroll around the Britomart to grab brunch or just hang out on one of their bean bags while sipping coffee (and be sure to try that buffalo milk for me).

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Cheers!

 

Brunch and Broadway: A Weekend in Nashville

My list for restaurants to try in Nashville, Tenn. gets longer and longer every year. Luckily, the two hour drive makes it fairly easy to try out some delicious treats every so often. The hardest part? Deciding whether to try somewhere new or go back to an old favorite.

Recently, my girlfriend Callie and I decided to spend a weekend in Nashville to celebrate our upcoming birthdays. I bribed her with tickets to the hockey game, but it quickly became a food centered trip as soon as we parked in the city.

This trip I decided to try new places (with the exception of one) in an effort to make a dent in my long list of restaurants, bakeries, and coffee shops that I had compiled from magazine articles, television shows, and research over the past few years. I had already tried famed restaurants such as Husk for dinner, so this trip I decided to take a brunch approach when planning our stops.

After reading about the brûléed latte at Steadfast Coffee, I knew this would be stop number one after our early morning arrival.dsc_0090

We drove straight to the Germantown district to try it out. Steadfast was beautiful and inviting with a grassy lawn outside for locals to gather and sip on. Placed next to a CrossFit gym, this coffee shop seemed like a local hidden gem where regulars were treated like family but always given exceptional service as if they were trying it for the first time. The shop, which offers specialty coffee beverages as well as adult beverages, had a walk-up bar concept where you ordered directly with the barista that would prepare your drink. You then pay for your drinks (as you eye the unique items in the pastry case) and sit to wait for your coffee to be brought to your table.img_1969

I ordered the brûléed latte made of charred milk, burnt orange, and rested espresso. The hints of orange brightened up the sweet milk and deep espresso tastefully, and the latte was a warm treat perfect for the gloomy morning. The overall feel of the shop transported me back to Portland, Ore. with the views of bright greenery outside and its clean, warm, and industrial styled decor inside (the gloomy day probably helped create that atmosphere too).

Callie and I sat for a few minutes enjoying the atmosphere then decided to take our drinks to go as we headed to our next stop: the Nashville Farmers’ Market.

Rain or shine, weekend or week day, the Nashville Farmers’ Market is a great place to stop anytime you venture to the city. The market features a traditional covered outdoor space where vendors set up tables of produce, fresh flowers, lines of colorful pumpkins in the fall, and  nursery space. There is also an indoor permanent market featuring small shops and wonderful food stands of all types and tastes.

We picked up two pumpkins and some ice cream at Jeni’s Ice Cream (disclaimer: this was not my first time at Jeni’s, but every time is like a first time since the flavor line up is always different – and amazing). We grabbed a late morning ice cream snack that included flavors like sweet potato eclair, sweet corn blackberry, and of course, chocolate. Jeni’s flavor line up never fails, and with around 20 flavors to choose from there is always something for the picky eater and the adventurous one.

We packed up our pumpkins and made our way to our brunch reservation at Le Sel.

Located adjacent to Vanderbilt University, Le Sel serves traditional French cuisine in a modern setting. The beautiful interiors like the marble raw bar, elegant pink furniture, and large wall displays rivaled artistic creations in any modern art museum.

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After the beautiful interiors left me in awe, I hoped that the food would have the same effect. The restaurant is known for their weekend brunch which includes punch bowls, savory or sweet treats, and light or heavy meal options for all of your brunching desires.

We began with the beignets with peach preserve and followed with our savory main course, which solved the dilemma of savory or sweet for brunch. Why choose one when you can have both? The beignets were sweet and petite, perfect for a starter. It is hard to mess up fried dough, so the special treat in this dish is the fresh peach preserve. The preserve was not too sweet and brought the punch of fresh flavorful peaches laced with a hint of cinnamon. It was delicious atop warm fried beignets.

For my main, I ordered the croque madame and my girlfriend ordered the cheeseburger. The best brunch I have ever had included a croque madame, so I had very high expectations for this meal. It came warm with a mornay cheese sauce that covered the brioche bread and a side of crispy fried potatoes. It was delicious topped with a perfectly fried egg, filled with savory ham, and doused with decadent cheese sauce. The perfect brunch meal that fills you for the day. Although it was hard to find room to eat the side of crisps potatoes, I managed to taste a few and they were just as delicious. My friend’s cheeseburger included patties atop a fresh bun, which was also sinfully good.

Later that evening we strolled Broadway and then headed to Bridgestone Arena to watch the Tampa Bay Lightning take on the Nashville Predators. In true sporting event fashion, we enjoyed a nice hot dog at the game.

We stayed the evening after the game in the city so that we could, of course, enjoy another brunch the next day. This adventure led us to the 12 South district on the edge of the city near Belmont University.

A slower side of Nashville that still exudes Southern hospitality and Nashville’s unique flare, 12 South is filled with locally owned farm to table restaurant and coffee shops. Locals stroll the neighborhoods on weekend mornings and wait in line to meet friends for brunch. The beautiful 75 degree weather made way for the perfect Sunday morning before our drive home.

I had seen several picture of Five Daughters Bakery, that recently opened its second location due to popularity, and knew I wanted to try it before I left. Although, I still had one more brunch spot in mind while I was in the city. The solution: donuts to go and brunch to stay.

We parked and made our way to Five Daughters to find ourselves in a line out the door of a small house-turned donut shop. The donuts come at a cost of four and a half dollars, but are combinations and donuts like you have never seen before. They pride themselves on their unique 100-layer donut concept that combines the unique fluffy layers of a perfect croissant with the delicious sweetness of a donut. Now, I have had several “cronuts” and none have been as good as the Five Daughters’ 100-layer donuts. Some of their donuts are injected with icing, topped with preserves, or even sprinkled with toppings. As an added bonus, they even offer paleo and gluten free options for those with dietary restrictions. I picked up three for the road including the chocolate coffee crunch, traditional vanilla bean (topped and injected with fresh vanilla icing), and the chocolate sea salt (also injected and topped with chocolate icing). The delicious donuts were a great take home souvenir that left me in a food coma for the following three days.

After grabbing 16 dollars worth of donuts for the road (it was a first time experience after months of Insta-drooling over donuts, I had to) we grabbed our final brunch at The Flipside.

A short walk across the street led us to The Flipside, a crisp white building with open walls that gave way to the beautiful fall breeze outside. We sat down in the vintage industrial style dining room to skim the menu.

The Flipside is best known for their thin pan-fried chicken which is what almost every menu item is centered around with various toppings. I opted for the ultra-Southern chicken and waffles while Callie enjoyed the  appropriately named “Brunch chicken.”

My chicken was perfectly seasoned and pan-fried to perfection. The waffles and syrup made a nice compliment to the savory and sweet dish. My friend’s meal was equally as good, covered with a fried egg, bacon, and cheese. The famous chicken did not disappoint and the open breeze dining area was the best way to end our weekend in Nashville.

The restaurants on this trip were all wonderful in their own unique way. If visiting Nashville, I would highly recommend a stop in 12 South on your way out to walk around and experience the hidden gem.

Until next time, Nashville… I already have several more spots on the list to try.

The Scoop on Cruze Farm

If you venture around Knoxville, Tennessee for more than a few days you will likely hear the name Cruze Farm come up at some point. A local favorite, the family owned farm is best known by locals for their farmer’s market stand, and most recently their Milk Bar pop-up shop.

The farm, located in East Tennessee, is home to Jersey cows the family milk on the daily. The Cruze family began by pasteurizing hormone-free whole milk, but have since created several other products using their Jersey milk. Knoxville’s obsession with Cruze Farm began when Colleen Cruze, also known as Cruze Farm Girl, started her ventures at the Market Square Famer’s Market several years ago and quickly became a regular favorite.

Cruze Farm is not your typical local farm business, it embodies Knoxville’s atmosphere and people in every way: that familiar southern charm and family heritage mixed with a unique, different and artistic feel.

On Saturday mornings you can find many of the Market Square Farmer’s Market goers in line for a fresh made buttermilk biscuit topped with a choice of savory meats or sweet jams from the Cruze Farm food truck. Delicious hot dogs with unique toppings like corn relish and cilantro are also a hit with the lunch crowd. Of course a dairy farm food truck has some creamy beverages, but instead of simply offering milk by the bottle, they offer a variety of unique milk flavors such as Chai and coffee milk. Their milks and ice creams also make appearances in well known establishments across the state of Tennessee, from Knoxville’s Whole Foods Market to the famous kitchens of Husk and Adele in Nashville.

Milk, biscuits, and hot dogs are not the only things that have followers in long lines at their food truck. A rotating selection of hand churned ice cream flavors are popular in shakes or atop cones. The homemade ice cream flavors listed on a blackboard, which often have chalk lines through them as they run out of stock, range from popular classics like birthday cake to the more unique blends like buttermilk lime cardamom.img_1465-2

The popularity of the ice cream led to Cruze Farm Girl’s summer venture, the Milk Bar. The small pop-up shop was located on Union Avenue in Downtown Knoxville in a converted store front for the summer months. It often brought lines that lasted well over 30 minutes and hugged the street sidewalks outside of the door. The hours varied each day, as did the flavor selection. One thing was certain though, the store was a direct reflection of the unique brand that Cruze Farm Girl has so thoughtfully created. From the fresh flowers to the red gingham, the pop-up was a larger expansion of the food truck that so many love.
My personal favorite Cruze Farm ice cream flavor is always a dead tie between the pumpkin (available in the fall only) and the brownie fudge ripple.img_1472 Nothing says “I’m still lingering in summer, but I’m ready to take on fall” like the pumpkin ice cream, which tastes identical to your favorite pumpkin pie filling (minus the dry store-bought crust that no one really likes). But at the same time, nothing solves my non-stop sweet tooth like the wonderfully rich brownie fudge ripple. What a dilemma… So what did they do? Oh they invented the “Dolly Parton” of course, a side by side extra large ice cream cone fittingly named after the queen of East Tennessee. This amazing invention allows you to enjoy both flavors without one melting on the other, and gives you a good laugh when reading the menu. If you think a heaping side by side double scoop of ice cream is too much, well I think Dolly herself would tell you that “You Better Get to Livin’.”

The pop-up was only for the short summer months, but Cruze Farm Girl hopes to open again in a new location next summer. Something tells me this will not be the last exciting project by Cruze Farm Girl. In the mean time, the delicious scoops, biscuits, and other treats can be found at the Market Square Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings and around East Tennessee at events such as the Tennessee Valley Fair.

To keep up with Cruze Farm’s latest locations and retailers visit:

http://www.cruzefarm.com or https://www.facebook.com/CruzeFarm

 

 

 

CycleBar: Not the Average Spin Class

Let me preface this article by saying I HATE running for my cardio. Somehow I survived three years of the cross country team, and now ask myself what I was ever thinking? Anyway, cardio is pretty hard to come by in my workout routine. A few years ago I went to one spin class to try out the new hip cardio workout everyone was going crazy over, and I hated that too. I have this rule in life though, never dismiss something until you have given it two chances.

Years later I find myself in the summer of 2016 trying to avoid the heat and my worst enemy, running. At the beginning of summer I decided to give spin class that second try before totally dissing it… Of course, I fell in love with it. If you have been to a spin class you did not enjoy I highly recommend you try a different instructor, every class is very different and you often find instructors you love and others you can pass on. The music, cool temperature, energetic teachers, and team work feeling hooked me and became my new cardio go-to. After taking classes at my local gym and sticking with it, I became curious as to what the newest upscale spin destination in Tampa may be like. I had heard of boutique spin locations in NYC, and that same concept spread to my city in the form of CycleBar.

I signed myself up for a Saturday 9:30am class with Lauren B. and prepared for the CycleBar experience. The typical local gym spin class is pretty simple, you walk in choose a bike and start peddling. The CycleBar spin experience is different before you even walk in the door. You have to sign up online and reserve the class best for your schedule, then select a seat so there is no guessing if the class will fill up before you get there. You then select if you need spin shoes (one of my favorite features of the CycleBar experience) and mark your size. Once you walk in the door you sign in on the iPads and grab your shoes. A locker area allows seats to change into your spin shoes, store your belongings in a locker, and grab a bottle with fresh water (that you can keep, woohoo). Some of these features are what create the top of the line experience, but none of them mean much if the class is not special too.

When you enter the spin room you can automatically tell that it will be different. The lights are low and the bikes are backlit, making you feel like you are about to be in for the ride of your life. The bikes are equipped with top of the line tracking devices that show your RPMs and gear selection, as well as other stats. They also come with a four pound bar weight for arm exercises.

Once going to my selected bike I clicked in and prepared for the 50 minute ride. The music playlist is selected by the instructor and also available to listen to on their website. The class I chose was filled with pop and house hits, some CB classes boast mashups and throwback themes to motivate your ride. Lauren, the cycle instructor, was well experienced and very friendly to everyone. She personally introduced herself before the class and knew the regulars by name, making the experience feel more like a weekly team ride than a random spin class. She was extremely energetic during the class and motivated every person to do their best and think about progress, not competition. Her motivation made the class feel like a fun experience, not a grueling exercise. The class consisted of sprints and climbs, and about 30 minutes in you pick up your weight and do some arms while maintaining a steady spin speed. This was something I had never experienced in a spin class, but I loved incorporating arms, which can often be forgotten about. Throughout the class Lauren turned the overhead monitors on to display the rankings for everyone in the class (this is optional, a choice when signing up online). Again, she stressed the importance of letting the rankings motivate you.

One of my favorite features of the experience was that they emailed me my personal results at the end of the class, that way I can track my progress for the day and over time. Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 5.57.23 PMCycleStats are sent to you after each class so you can track your progress. My only dislikes about the experience were that I rode less than half the amount of miles as I usually do, and I did not burn as many calories as normal. However, I blame that on the fact that this was my first class in a very different setting and with a different teaching style. Trust me, I still got one heck of a work out and am returning for my second class this week!

So, my final review: CycleBar is a great place for a spin class and is an experience like no other. You cannot find this at your local gym, and the statistics tracking and upscale details will keep you motivated and coming back for more. This is the place for you if you are looking for the top of the line experience with upscale amenities. You can find all of their information on their website: https://southtampa.cyclebar.com. A free 30 minute introductory class is offered Saturday mornings for first time riders. Classes are cheaper in bulk quantities and offered various times every day for any skill level. Make sure to keep an eye on their Facebook page for promotions and free class deals! Maybe I’ll see you in the next class…

Special thanks to Alie and CycleBar instructor Lauren for sponsoring this post with my free ride.