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Biltmore Estate – April 2014

We were recently heading back to the Winston-Salem area to visit our daughter and son in law, and this time we tacked on a couple of extra days to make the drive to Asheville and visit the Biltmore House.  This has been something on our list of things to do for quite a while, and it seemed like the perfect time.  Mansion houses from this era always interest us, and this was the biggest.  Built by George Vanderbilt, the grandson of the founding father of the Vanderbilt fortune, no expense was spared in the design and construction of this place.  Far more than just a great house, this property is really a destination in and of itself, as you can stay in a beautifully appointed inn, indulge in some of the activities the Vanderbilts and their guests might have passed their days with, as well as shopping, eating and drinking to your heart’s content.

While we certainly wished we could have stayed an extra night at the estate, the evening we spent at the Inn on Biltmore Estate was very enjoyable.  After a late afternoon flight into Charlotte we had slept in Gastonia, rising early to complete the drive to Asheville and tour the house in the morning.  We had arrangements for a production tour

Front Lawn from the Rooftop

and tasting at the estate winery in the afternoon (a separate blog on the winery and wines will be coming).  They greeted us at the checkpoint with a prepared parking certificate for guests and directed us to the inn, where we parked the car, left the bags, and hopped on board their comfortable shuttle for the trip to the house.  You really don’t need your car if you’re staying at the inn and are going anywhere on property.  Characteristics of a Disney like experience were definitely evident, minus the characters and thrill rides.  They do, of course, have a castle here.

We would recommend taking the audio tour of the house first, as it allows you to take a self paced walk through the generally open areas and you can tailor the amount of detail you wish to explore.  Here will come a word of advice as well, the house can get very crowded on holidays and weekends.  We arrived on a Thursday, and our audio tour was leisurely paced throughout and we never had to wait or try to push through a throng of visitors to get to our next stop.  This was not the case on Friday, as we had booked two private tours (both excellent and highly recommended), so we went behind the ropes in our small group.  On the other side of the ropes the lines lengthened throughout the day, and when we left at about 1 PM there were lines out the door, lines all the way up the four story stair case and crowds milling about everywhere inside and out.  This is a very popular attraction, and we presume our experience would have been slightly less enjoyable had we waited until Friday to do the audio tour.  We strongly recommend a weekday visit if you can manage it.

The Mansion House and Gardens

The house is spectacular, really built as almost a luxury hotel and clearly intended to provide a place where friends and family could visit and stay for extended periods.  While the main rooms downstairs are grand, there are a series

Looking down at the Winter Garden

of areas on various floors where sets of guest rooms are located, all with adjoining salons and library areas where those guests could relax and interact.  Please don’t read this and be disappointed however.  You will gaze in awe at the 70 foot vaulted ceilings in the dining room, a space of staggering proportions, including an impressive pipe organ on one side and a very cool triple fireplace on the other.  Most of the rest of the house is closer to mortal dimensions, although the ninety foot long tapestry gallery is almost three times as long as our house. While it is large, it is also kind of homey in many places and I could live in parts of it.  Not sure what I would do with the other 95% however, even though Cheri could probably convince herself we would use it.  The big soaking tubs in every bathroom were nice.

Architecturally it is a marvel, with a very evident French Chateau inspiration and an attention to detail that is almost

Normally Unseen Gargoyles

George Vanderbilt's Initials on the Roof Ridge

unbelievable. To really get an appreciation for that you should take the Architect’s tour, which will take you to the upper levels and out onto some balconies which give you views of the upper rooftops, close ups of some of the gargoyles, and incredible views of the surrounding gardens, the gables and especially the giant cupola covering the Winter Garden.  You will get to see the ornamentation on every corner and line, the embossed initials GV (for George Vanderbilt) which are on the top roof flashing and the carvings you could never see unless you were actually on the roof.  It is a monumental commitment to quality that went into this amazing property.  We highly recommend the Architect’s Tour, although for those afraid of heights it might be a bit scary.

When you have finished the house you can visit the gardens, which are also grand in scale and splendid in execution.  While we were there a bit early for the azaleas and rhododendrons, the tulips were up and they covered the expanse of the walled flower garden in a simply spectacular way.  It was gorgeous.  As we left the tulips we entered the

Part of the Tulip Seas

greenhouses, and the theme switched to orchids and lilies.  This was equally impressive, and there were several rooms within the greenhouse complex including one devoted to cacti.

In a departure from the physical attributes of the property, let’s talk about the people who are maintaining it.  The staff we encountered were extremely courteous and knowledgeable.  They were also all apparently genuinely pleased to be working there, as we heard several of them actually say that.  Not once did we meet someone who was curt, aloof, inattentive or less than pleasant.  This place is run well, efficiently and apparently profitably as they don’t seem to spare expense anywhere.  You can appreciate that when you look at the arrangements of fresh cut flowers that adorn the house.  We noticed them when we walked in and the fragrant lilies filled our senses.  We saw them at every turn.  We met several of the people responsible in the lower levels as we came upon the working floral shop and the five or six women busily creating new works.  It really is pretty impressive.

This is worth the trip.  If you spend the day you could do the self guided tour and maybe two specialty tours, as well as stroll through the gardens. That accounts for one day, but there is much more to do on the estate, and it is the other things that really make the Biltmore Estate a destination.  A side benefit is that when you take the plunge and stay here, visiting the house becomes easier and less stressful as well.  It’s all good.

The Inn

Luxury best describes The Inn on Biltmore Estate.  From the moment you pull up they will take care of everything, and you should let them.  We got out of our car, had them put the bags on a cart, handed the keys to the valet and

The Inn from Antler Village Below

jumped on the shuttle to the house.  This was great.  We didn’t have to deal with the parking lots at the house, which are certainly manageable but still nothing beats getting dropped off at the entrance.  When we got back the way the inn the high service level really became evident. We stopped at the front desk, received our key and handed them our luggage tag, and were literally not in our room long enough to look around when the knock on the door came and the bellhop arrived with the luggage.  We have never, never had a bell stand respond this quickly.  Service almost never missed a beat from this point until the moment we left.

There is complimentary coffee in the lobby in the morning, which is not that different

Part of the Lobby

than other hotels but which is really good.  You can have lunch in the lobby, or you can have tea in the lobby.  The lobby is beautiful.  There is a lobby bar (with an excellent scotch selection by the way).  This is all good.  We believe you can really tell the tenor of a hotel by the lobby, and this is exceptional.

Our comfortable room

Dinner was downstairs in the dining room, and while there were a few issues overall, it was very good.  You can read about that in our food review of the trip.

Our description of the room is easy, it was elegant and comfortable.  The only slightly negative comment is that the separate bathtub was a bit small, and really isn’t a soaking tub.  Other than that it was wonderful, spacious and comfortable.

We really have nothing negative to say about the Inn.  When we were reluctantly leaving I called the front desk and asked for a bellhop.  They were there within three minutes.  Simply amazing.

The Estate

Biltmore Estate is huge.  Once it was far bigger at 125,000 acres, but it still sports 8,000 acres of rolling hills, forests. rivers and farmlands.  Cattle and sheep graze in the fields.   Overall it is a very calming pastoral scene.  That’s one of the reasons the shuttles are so convenient, as it is too large to really walk between areas.

Activities abound for a two to three day stay.  There are archery classes, skeet shooting, horseback riding, an off road driving experience, the Inn, the restaurants, the winery and the spa.  Not to mention the likelihood of spending an hour or two, or an afternoon, in serious relaxation.  You could stay here for a couple or three nights and never leave the grounds.  We’d like to try that approach next time.

A statue of Cornelia and Cedric the St. Bernard in Antler Village

Antler Village is right down the hill from the inn and accommodates additional restaurants, shops, a petting zoo and a small museum on the family who built, lived in and still own the estate.  The museum is worth the visit and includes a lot of old photographs of the Vanderbilts and the people who designed and oversaw construction of the house and gardens.

At one time the estate accommodated its own sawmill, nurseries, a railroad to bring in building supplies and later the largest herd of Jersey cows anywhere.  In fact the dairy farm at the Biltmore was renowned for its quality, its ice cream and distributed milk as far as Charlotte.  Sometime after the dairy business was moved off site (it was eventually sold to Pet Milk) the building was re-purposed into the winery.

Summary

We’ll be posting blogs on the winery and wines as well as the food over the next week or two.  Restaurant reviews will be added to the blog and Urban Spoon also, so look for them.  We followed up with a few days in Winston-Salem and will add a few restaurants from that area.

Visiting the Biltmore Estate was a great way to start our trip and a relaxing and interesting destination.  From what we have read the city of Asheville is also great, and we’ll have to spend some time there on a future excursion.  We heartily recommend a visit to the Biltmore.  If you have the time spend two nights at the inn and really relax.

A votre sante!

Christmas 2013 Trip to Disneyworld

We held a small family reunion at Disney World in Orlando, Florida over the holidays this year, and spent five excellent days with the Mouse. There were some ups and downs but in general there were a lot more ups. We’ll be sharing some restaurant and wine reviews and some Disney resort and park experiences in some future blogs. This blog will provide a general overview of the trip.

We arrived on Sunday, December 22 on a stormy day up and down the Eastern seaboard, so we were all pretty happy just to get there, even if it was an hour late. Transfer to the hotel was uneventful, and we stayed on property, so we were in the house and the car keys were tucked away. I commute a lot and always enjoy a few days away from my car, and the Disney transportation is pretty good. It’s not always the quickest, so one tip for you is to be prepared to jump in a cab once in a while. After a long day in a crowded park sometimes the last thing you want to do is wait in line half an hour for a crowded bus or boat. There are always lots of cabs available and you can get pretty much anywhere on property for under $20 or so. We used the cab method twice this trip.

EPCOT at night

As always we began our Disney adventure in EPCOT, the family’s favorite park overall, although Alex does prefer Disney Studios. EPCOT is big and can swallow crowds, so it is a good choice during the busy holidays. It also has the World Showcase, which has many restaurants and food stands where you can sample regional food and drink, always one of our priorities these days. As an added bonus the EPCOT resort area is right off World Showcase, so you have the restaurants and bars of five additional resorts right there, as well as the boardwalk area. Disney’s Beach Club, Yacht Club, and Boardwalk resorts as well as the Swan and Dolphin hotels

The EPCOT Christmas Tree

circle the lagoon. This is very handy if you want to escape for a few hours, or if you have dinner at one of the resort hotels. Some of the best restaurants on property are here.  There are other reasons to visit World Showcase as well, as the cultural exhibits can be excellent.  The current offerings are definitely worth visiting, with a large diorama of the Emperor’s Terracotta Soldiers in China, an exhibit chronicling the historical roots of Japanese Anime and early Central American artifacts in Mexico.

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We chose a new restaurant for us the first night, Tutto Italia in the Italy pavilion. Sporting a pretty classic Italian menu the restaurant offers very nice ambiance, excellent food and an efficiently representative wine list. We had a great meal here, with everyone enjoying their food, as well as the two bottles of wine, a Chianti Classico Riserva and a Super Tuscan. Details of the food and wine will be in the restaurant review of Tutto Italia. We would recommend this heartily. Service was excellent as well.

The first full park day was at Disney Studios, which pays homage to the movies. Highlights for us always include the Tower of Terror, a great free fall ride with unsurpassed theming. Right

across from that is the Rock and Roller Coaster, an in the dark coaster which shoots you out of a cannon and is dedicated to the music of Aerosmith. On the other side of the park is Star Tours, a simulator ride with several different possible Star Wars adventures, the Toy Story shooting ride (now one of the favorites at the park, though not

ours), the Great Movie ride and several other attractions. You can meet the Muppets, see some backstage action or view a wonderful exhibit about the life of Walt Disney himself. Disney Studios is worth a day. Lunch was at the Sci-Fi Dine In Theater, sort of like a 1950’s drive in with decent food and excellent movie trailers showing on a big screen. This is fun, although not a culinary masterpiece. Still, we always find it worth the visit.

Dinner was at Narcoossee’s, located at the Grand Floridian Resort and which used to be one of our favorite restaurants on property. This visit changed that perception however as the food was subpar, although the service was still excellent. Narcoossee’s is expensive,and we did not enjoy the meal. More on that in a restaurant review coming soon.

Day three featured a morning at the Animal Kingdom, which while worth the visit is really only a half day park. That is if you get there at opening, which we always do. When you arrive at one of the parks at opening you can ride the big rides immediately with no wait and really knock off all the major attractions by early afternoon. The alternative is to get there later, play your Fast Passes as well as possible and wait for everything else. We vastly prefer the former, although at Christmas some of the parks were opening at 7:00, so this philosophy involved some rather early mornings. Yet we persevered and basically did everything at the parks in four days while leaving early almost every day.

At the Animal Kingdom the must do attractions include Expedition Everest, an excellent coaster themed around the legendary Yeti, or Abominable Snowman. Also catch the Safari, which is a ride through the animal sanctuary in a bush

truck. This particular safari was one of the best ever, as we saw many rhinos, hippos and the best lion viewing in our many trips there. If you like shows the Festival of the Lion King is great. The Dinosaur ride is also good, as is the midway area in Dinoland. There are two excellent walking trails where you can experience more animals, including gorillas and tigers. For eats, we always go to the Yak and Yeti, located in the Asia area and home to a varied menu which we have found to be very enjoyable. Generally we’ll show up right at 11:00, take over the bar area, get a few drinks flowing and have an wonderful time. After lunch we usually leave Animal Kingdom and head somewhere else. This time that somewhere else was Downtown Disney.

Downtown Disney has three distinct areas, although these days it is really more like two as Pleasure Island is an empty shell. The marketplace is home to many shops and restaurants, including a Rainforest Cafe and a T-Rex. On the other side is the West Side, also home to many shops and restaurants as well as a permanent Cirque du Soleil show, a House of Blues and Disney Quest, which is an indoor arcade that let’s you get right inside the games. We played in Disney Quest for a while and strolled the length of Downtown Disney, stopping for a drink at Raglan Road, an Irish restaurant on the edge of Pleasure Island. Pleasure Island is between the other two areas and used to be a fun place, with an improv comedy club, dance clubs, a fun themed club called the Adventurer’s Club and a host of bars. Now it is empty and depressing, and has been for a while. You would never guess Disney would leave that kind of real estate fallow for so long.

Anyway, dinner that night was back at the hotel, and nothing really to write home about. Adequate is the word I would use. This was at Mangino’s, located at Shades of Green resort. In the past this has been pretty good, but this time not so much as the pizza dough seemed to have been the frozen variety. I did have an excellent chicken soup here though. I would consider Mangino’s a place you can get a decent meal for a reasonable price, especially if you have several young ones in tow. It is also generally not crowded and you can get in without a reservation.

Christmas Day was spent at EPCOT, to take advantage of that people swallowing trait I mentioned earlier. Here we knocked off Soarin and Test Track right away. Soarin is a simulator ride where you hang glide across the diverse terrain and areas of California. Test Track is a “thrill” ride where you get in a car and go through testing before engaging in a high

speed circle of the building. Soarin is great, Test Track not so much. It really is a huge Chevrolet commercial, where in the past it was a huge GM commercial. I did like the new theming better though. We have two restaurants to report on from Christmas Day. Lunch was at the Coral Reef, located in the same building as the Living Seas, and the restaurant provides very nice views of the gigantic 5.7 million gallon tank with its aquatic inhabitants. To make things better the food is quite good here as well. We ordered grilled Mahi Mahi, a vegetarian dish, lobster bisque, crab cakes, lobster orecchiette pasta and a chicken caesar salad. All the seafood dishes were very good, and my Mahi Mahi was downright excellent. We’ve never had a bad meal here.

For dinner we went to the Restaurant Marrakesh in the Morocco pavilion. This we have

enjoyed in the past, however this particular night (Christmas) they were in rush mode and just pushing tables through their meals. It was not a great experience and certainly not a great value. If we come back again on a major holiday I would book dinner outside in one of the EPCOT resorts and then return to the park. We did really enjoy the tequila bar in the Mexico pavilion however, as they had a great selection of top shelf tequila.

We followed up with a day at the Magic Kingdom, once again a park you want to experience at opening to get the most done for the least hassle and frustration. We left right after lunch at The Plaza having done essentially the whole park, which was fortunate as it was getting crazy and people were just streaming in. The new Fantasyland renovation is almost done, although the coaster is not. Do yourself a favor and get up early.  The Plaza is a good choice for lunch here as the Magic Kingdom has the least extensive options for restaurants of the major parks.  Sandwiches rule here but they are good and the ice cream and shakes are decadent.  By the way, if you’re planning on eating at the Be Our Guest restaurant in Beast’s Castle, get there early for lunch (or Fast Pass it!).  Folks were lined up well in advance of opening, which was enough for us to go elsewhere.

After an impromptu afternoon at Disney Studios we wrapped up our trip with some relaxing drinks and family poker in the bar at the Boardwalk Resort, and then a fabulous dinner at Blue Zoo, located in the Dolphin resort. There will be a full review of that very soon.

It was a great trip and really nice having everyone together for the holiday. In general Disney

is still a great place to spend a few days. We did notice an overall drop in some attention to detail and the loss of a few favorite things however. Some ride details seemed to have been left not functioning as long as the basic ride was not affected. The cleanliness level was a tiny notch below what we have been used to in our previous 20+ trips as well. Most disconcerting was the elimination of the Christmas light tunnel on the bridge between Future World and World Showcase in EPCOT. We missed that a lot. I don’t think Walt would be happy.

We’ve been so many times we could easily write a book on the place, but there are enough of those already. Maybe we should write one on the food and wine scene, as I haven’t seen that done. It’s worth doing, and there are enough restaurants and wine lists to fill up a few pages. It might be a project for another time. In the mean time we’ll stop here and spare you the gory details.

We still love Mickey Mouse, but it will be a while before we see him again.

 

Weekend in the Berkshires – September 2013

 

Recently we had to make a run to Cooperstown, NY to bring Alex more of his stuff as he starts his graduate

program.  Since the weather was beautiful and we had a few days off we took advantage and stopped in the Berkshires for two nights.  This is a trip we have been talking about for years and just have never done.  I’m not sure why, but it was time to rectify that.

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We arrived midday on a Friday in early September, a glorious day with bright sun and cooler temperatures, and proceeded directly to The Mount, built by celebrated American author Edith Wharton.  This was really the reason for the trip as Cheri has always wanted to visit.  She’s a big fan of Ms. Wharton’s work, and this was going to be a real treat for her.  The Mount is gorgeous, and the group restoring it has done an admirable job.  Like many of these mansions, The Mount had passed through several owners and was in a rather sad state of disrepair by the early 1990′s.  You would never know it now, other than the pictures and video of the before and after states, as the property has been returned to its original grandeur.  This is not a house like Marble House in Newport, which hits you in the face with opulence and then keeps in coming in bucket loads.  The

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Mount is more reserved, the materials are not over the top, and it comes across as a very livable space.  I also liked it very much.  We spent the better part of four hours taking both the house and garden tours, some free time to wander, and an enjoyable hour on the back patio with lunch and wine from their cafe.  You can visit The Mount’s website here.

If you visit do take the time to wander in the gardens.  They are beautiful, and it is the views of the mansion from the lower gardens that give you the perspective of the property as it was envisioned.  It is very much a house in harmony and integrated with its surroundings.  We also picked up a first edition copy of one of Ms. Wharton’s lesser

The Linden Walk at The Mount

known works at the store, for surprisingly little money.  If you are a book collector make sure you check out the small selection of older volumes on the bookshelf in the back of the store, they are all first editions with most also first printings.  You won’t find The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence there, but they do have a nice little selection of some of her others.

Our accommodations were in Lenox, MA at the Hampton Terrace Bed and Breakfast in Lenox.  This is a very nice property located a stone’s throw from Church Street, which is where most of the restaurants and shops in Lenox are located.  There are a lot of positives about Hampton Terrace, and the biggest might be the owners.  Stan was incredibly responsive and informative and it is apparent that they really value your experience and want to hear if something is not the way you like it.  The pool is heated and open 24/7, which is really nice.  We stayed in a king suite, located behind the main house on the other side of the pool.  You can stay there, in the main house or in the carriage house. The suites come with a nice jacuzzi tub and a wet bar area.  There are a couple of nit picky issues we had with the room.  One, you can’t sit in the love seat and watch TV, that you can only do from the bed.  Two, the pedestal sink in the bathroom does not really accommodate someone who has to deal with a blow dryer and makeup.  A vanity with some counter space just makes more sense.  Lastly, there were a couple of minor housekeeping issues we pointed out before we left.  Judging by the way the owners seem to care about their property I can virtually guarantee you won’t find the same problems if you stay there.

The pool area

Breakfast is a buffet and served in the main house.  There are large communal tables as well as tables for two and four in an adjoining room.  You’ll find some kind of eggs, meat and a carb entree offered along with coffee, juice, cereals and the usual suspects.  This worked well.  The location is perfect as we mentioned earlier, so after breakfast everything in the  area is within easy reach.  We liked the Hampton Terrace and would recommend it.  In general we’re more full service inn/hotel  people and don’t tend to stay in B&Bs.  This is a good one.  You can visit the Hampton Terrace’s website here.

For our full day in the area we hit several local highlights as well as spend some time in a neighboring town.  In the morning we visited the Norman Rockwell museum, which for me was the surprise of the trip.  I have never been a huge fan of Norman Rockwell, viewing him as basically a magazine cover artist.  Go see his work in person and that perspective will be shattered.  His work is more thought provoking when you are looking at the original.  Part of that comes from the increased

The Norman Rockwell Museum entrance

scale of the paintings, and some comes from the technique you can appreciate in the

An iconic Rockwell original

original work that wouldn’t come across in the smaller reproduction of the magazine.  We saw many of the famous, iconic images everyone would recognize, but we also saw many other images that showed a deeper message or different perspective.  I left with a new found respect and an impression

Norman's brother's art - unexpected!

that Mr Rockwell was indeed an important artist in not only the U.S., but in a far more general context.   They also had a visiting exhibit which featured many original sketches, drawings, cells and advertising material from Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which is really why we went in the first place.  I’m glad we did.  The museum website is here.  We strongly suggest you visit if you are in the area.

Following the museum tour we drove into Stockbridge for lunch, eating out on the porch at the Red Lion Inn.  This venerable inn is probably the most recognizable establishment

The Red Lion

The Red Lion

in Stockbridge.  My lunch special of mussels and chorizo was excellent. There are also a number of other restaurants and specialty shops along the main drag.  You can see a painting of this part of Main Street at the Rockwell museum, so it was cool to follow seeing the painting with a stroll of the actual street in Stockbridge.  We had previously dined in the inn’s tavern as well, which was also good.  On this trip we initially went downstairs into the Lion’s Den, and we suggest you avoid that area.  It is dark and dreary, with a strange smell and the feeling you are sitting in a damp basement.  Within a minute we both looked at each other and bolted for blue sky and sunshine.

Post lunch we went to Naumkeag, a beautiful estate in Stockbridge that represents another very livable house on amazing grounds.  Much like The Mount, this property’s gardens have been renewed through a large investment and a lot of work. One major difference is that this house was willed to the preservation society and came with all it’s furnishings and decorations intact.  This is really nice as you can see exactly how the owners lived inside the house.  Here the star is absolutely the gardens, and if you visit we suggest you get the audio tour and carve out at least an hour to stroll the garden rooms.  These gardens are much different than at The Mount, and meander through different garden rooms with

The amazing Blue Stairs

numerous fountains and sweeping vistas.  You will also see

A very interesting stair fountain at Naumkeag

one of the most spectacular staircases on the planet.  Truly this is a special  place.

Our restaurant experience in Lenox was good as well. The first night we had dinner at Alta, a bistro like restaurant and wine bar on Church Street.  The menu is excellent, and I wanted to try pretty much everything on it.  We did have a couple of small issues that we shared with the owner though.  One was that the middle dining room is kind of in a transitional space.  I could see the big screen bar TV from my seat and it kind of pulled me into the bar feeling, even though we were not in the bar.  My other view behind Cheri was of the ladies’ room door, and that didn’t help.  Keep in mind that our table was the only one that would get this particular combination of vantage points.  There were maybe three tables that could have the TV issue. A three  foot extension of one wall could eliminate the bar TV problem quickly.

ALTA

ALTA

The food at Alta was very tasty and represented creative dishes well presented.  One issue was heat however, with Cheri’s fish not quite as hot as she would have liked.  My dish featured seared scallops which were perfectly cooked, however they were placed on a cold artichoke pesto that seemed to suck the heat out of the scallops.  I think the play of hot and cold would have worked well,  had the scallops stayed hot.  unfortunately they were pulled to lukewarm.  Everything was delicious however, and simply putting the pesto on the side might fix this issue.  Maybe some kind of clever insulating layer, as simple as a piece of lettuce, could keep the temperature difference intact.  We shared our comments with the owner and he seemed to take the constructive advice to heart.  Keep in mind these are relatively minor issues.  We very much enjoyed our meal and will return to Alta if we visit Lenox again.  This is a restaurant on the edge of being truly excellent.  Tidying up a few loose ends should do it. We recommend Alta.  You can visit their website here.

Or second night we had dinner at Bistro Zinc.  This is also on Church Street right down from Alta.  The atmosphere

Bistro Zinc

Bistro Zinc

is clean and modern in both the main dining room as well as the bar.  We had stopped in at the bar the previous night for a cocktail and an appetizer.  Both we good, and thus we went back to see if dinner was at the same level.  Our reservations were early, at 6:00 due to a show that night, so we were quite alone in the dining room when we started our meal.  The room slowly filled up during dinner.

Service was excellent, and we really have nothing negative to say about any aspect of our dinner.  Cheri had the Beef Bourguignon, and I had the Steak Frites.   Both were well done, nice and hot, and served quickly.  While the dishes at Zinc tended to be a little less adventurous than the ones at Alta, the overall experience is very good and we recommend the restaurant if you are in the area.  Their website is here.

Following dinner we drove all of about two minutes to the location of Shakespeare and Company, a Berkshires theatrical group that puts on very well done plays in a beautiful new building.  They were actually resident at The Mount for many years until moving into their new digs.  The main building is great, with a nice sitting area, a lounge and a very clean, modern feeling.  We were there for ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and it was wonderfully acted.  This was a great way to end our visit.  Their website is here.

All in all this was an excellent weekend.  We did a lot of fun and interesting things, had some very good meals, and enjoyed the B&B.  We can nitpick anything, and that is really what our criticism’s are here.  If you have never been to the Berkshires we definitely recommend it.  We also recommend early September, because the weather was spectacular (not that we guarantee the same for you).  Lenox and Stockbridge, MA are right off the Mass Pike at Exit 2.  Most of the attractions are within a 15 minute car ride of each other.

 

Montreal Grand Prix Trip – June 2013

This June my son Alex and I took the drive up Route 87, the Northway, to Montreal for the Formula One Race.  Alex is a huge fan, and I have become one as well, so this was much anticipated and represented his college graduation present.  We weren’t 100% sure what to expect, but the city seemed like a great place to visit, the race couldn’t be bad, and it was only a 6+ hour drive.  The harder part for this particular weekend is finding reasonable lodging, as the city books out early and every hotel triples their normal rates for race weekend.  Fortunately I booked very early and found a reasonable rate at a conveniently located, clean and quite nice small hotel in the city’s Latin Quarter.  Here it is, Hotel St. Denis.

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Entrance to Hotel St. Denis

 

Montreal is a combination of the elements you would generally expect to find in any large city.  There is an older section. a modern section, a more bohemian area, a Chinatown, a waterfront etc.  One thing that did stand out for us was that whatever section we walked through, and we walked everywhere, there was never a moment where we felt anything less than perfectly safe.  I had read several reviews for our hotel and some had mentioned the area being a bit shady.  I can’t for the life of me figure out what they were referring to, as we found it fine at all times of the day and night.  There were a few beggars, bu they were all very passive and not threatening.  The best part of this hotel was it’s location.  It was a ten minute walk to the Vieux Montreal (the old city), literally two minutes to the Metro stop, and ten minutes to downtown.  You can walk it all, or use the Metro, which is really a first class mass transit system – very clean and safe.

Unfortunately it rained a good part of the four days we were there, but that did not stop us from getting around a bit.  Still, there were lots of people everywhere, and Montreal was lively in spite of the rain.  There were race events every day as well, so we spent the bulk of every afternoon at the track.    We’ll spare you any talk of the food and drink at the track, as it was Budweiser and hot dogs, and pretty much nothing else.  Not an epicurean delight, but the cars were very, very cool and we had fun.

So here are a few more of the details:

Food:

Outside the racetrack the food is more varied and the options seemingly endless.  Near our hotel were Thai, Japanese, Indian, Chinese, Lebanese, Italian, pizzerias, burger joints and on and on.  Literally attached to the hotel on either side were an Italian and a Japanese restaurant, and they were both excellent.  We hit both of those, a brew pub in Vieux Montreal, a pizzeria on Rue Notre Dame and a couple of other establishments for drinks.  We’ll give you a brief overview of the two next door.

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Pacini – right next door!

As you can see, Pacini’s is literally next door.  They serve a very nice Italian dinner menu and are also open for a full service breakfast, which was really handy.  We found the food delicious and the prices very reasonable.  At dinner I had pasta with red sauce and a nice piece of halibut on top.  I have to say the red sauce is about the best I’ve ever had.  Alex had a big bowl of pasta as well and enjoyed it.  There were all the usual suspects with a few nice twists on the menu.  The wine menu was limited but adequate, and they offer different glass sizes in most restaurants in Montreal.  You could get a 3 oz or a 6 oz pour, as well as carafe’s and full bottles.  I found the 6 oz pour far superior to the 3 oz.

At breakfast Pacini’s serves traditional eggs (eggs benedict comes in several varieties), as well as other staples such as french toast.  Their prices are very reasonable and it was pretty crowded, but not overly so.  Waitstaff were all very friendly and bi-lingual.  That was one nice aspect of the city, everyone seems to speak french and english, certainly everyone in the service industry.

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Komiko’s

To the left of the door into Hotel St. Denis is Komiko’s, a Japanese restaurant which is very popular and generally very crowded.  We showed up one night without a reservation and they were able to squeeze us in, but just barely.  If you go I suggest you call ahead.  What makes it so popular in our opinion is the format, it’s an all you can eat for one price establishment.  It’s all made fresh to order, not a buffet.  They’ll give you a menu and you circle what you want, and you can re-order as many times as you like.  One thing to keep in mind though, they charge you a dollar for every piece of food you leave on your plate, so don’t order the farm right out of the gate!  The idea is to start slow and then re-order as you like.  This is not a meal to rush through.  The portions might throw you off as well.  When you order one calamari ring that’s what you get, not a plate full as we would be accustomed to.  It’s very fun and the food was good, from the rolls to the nigiri sushi, sashimi and cooked items.  Garden salads and desserts are also on the menu.  If this seems a little too adventurous for you they also have a regular menu with dinner entrees and bento boxes.  We would definitely recommend it.

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Liter of home brew at Les 3 Brasseurs

Our other choices, a pizzeria and brew pub, were adequate but nothing to write home about.  The brew pub did serve beer in liters, which was cool.  It was also more beer than I like to drink at a meal and I found it a challenge, but did succeed.  The pizzeria, Pizzadelic,  was near the Cathedral Notre Dame on Rue Notre Dame.  The brew pub, Les 3 Brasseurs, was near the east end of Rue St Paul and Les Place Jacques Cartier.  That’s a fun area, with sidewalk cafes aplenty, lot’s of trinkets and curio shops and plenty of poutine.  Poutine is sort of the national food of Montreal and is essentially french fries covered in brown gravy and cheese curds.  Lots of people were eating it, but somehow we never tried it.  Next time.

There are countless options for restaurants in this city.  We passed hundreds during our visit just walking around, in every part of the city.  It would take years to really experience enough of them to say you had the pulse of the city’s culinary offerings.

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The room at Hotel St. Denis

The Hotel: As I mentioned earlier, the Hotel St. Denis was clean, comfortable and very, very conveniently located.  The room we had sported two double beds, a pull out couch, a large roomy space and an adequate bathroom.  The hotel staff was friendly and answered all questions politely.  Maid service was good and unobtrusive.  The CIMG1841parking was also very convenient, with an indoor car park located right around the corner and come and go access provided for $16 per day.    We never moved the car during our stay as the Metro was so convenient, and really the only reasonable way to get to and from the racetrack, which is actually located on an island.

With very good restaurants essentially attached to the hotel, and the Berri-Uquam Metro station a block away, this is a great place to stay and use as a launching point for seeing Montreal.  You can walk to Place Jacques Cartier in ten minutes and stroll the old city.  This is good value.  There are many, many choices, but I would definitely consider staying here again.

The City: Montreal has a bit of everything, and all of it is very accessible.  You can spend some time in the old city, with it’s range of shops and restaurants.  You can do the nightlife downtown in the more modern areas, where there are fine hotels and high priced restaurants.  There are also very reasonable restaurants as well.  Parc du Mont Royal looms above CIMG1758 CIMG1759 CIMG1770  the northern sections, and we did not get the chance to visit it.  There is beautiful architecture both old and new.  There are also very nice people.  Almost without fail we ran into nothing but courteous individuals, and English is not a bad word here either.  Everyone in the service industry was bi-lingual and were perfectly happy to speak English, or to let me flail away in bad French.  Never did we feel threatened, and the Metro is wonderful.  There is also an extensive underground network of passages and shops, which we just scratched the surface of and which must be a blessing in winter months.

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Notre Dame

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Looking west on Rue St Paul from Place Jacques Cartier

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’d definitely return here, either for the race or just for a visit.  Montreal is a great city.  Don’t forget the islands when you’re there.  Ile Sainte-Helene is just one Metro stop from the Berri-Uquam station.  There are museums and parks, as well as a large amusement park, La Ronde, on the northern tip of the island.  A short walk over a bridge brings you to Ile Notre Dame, which is occupied by the track, some more parkland, and a casino.

The Race:  Oh yes, there was a race that weekend.  If you’re a Formula One fan on TV, then I heartily suggest you take in a race in person sometime.  There is no way to describe the sounds of the cars, you just have to experience it.  We tried experiencing it without ear protection the first day and quickly bought some earplugs.  They are loud, screaming

One of Mercedes-Petronas Cars at pit row

One of Mercedes-Petronas Cars at pit row

The pre-race drivers parade.

The pre-race drivers parade.

machines that seem to want to jump out of their skin when the drivers push them.  Acceleration is breathtaking from the stands, can’t imagine what it’s like in the car itself.  The whole affair takes four days, if you include the open house on Thursday where you can meet the drivers.  Friday is practice, Saturday is qualifying, and of course Sunday is the race.  Along with Formula One there are some other car series racing as well, so the days are filled with the various sounds of Ferraris and Porsches and Formula One cars screaming around the track.  Just remember – it’s strictly Budweiser and carnival food inside, but you can bring in a cooler and many people do.

One neat aspect is that they open the track after the race and let everyone walk around it.  We

View of the Hairpin from Our Seats

View of the Hairpin from Our Seats

jaunted past the pits and got some close ups of the cars.  No drivers to be seen unfortunately.  However we did get a great momento on our victory lap, which was a large piece of one of the Rolex banners.  Some clever artifact preservation by Alex allowed us to get it home in one piece and it is now a prized part of his collection.  Race day was fun, but overall somewhat exhausting.  We just strolled Vieux Montreal for a a bit later in the day and ate in Les 3 Brasseurs before calling it a night.

Summary: Montreal is great, the race is a blast and we would go back.  What to change next time?  I think we spend a bit more and sit up by the start line and pits to see what the action looks like up there.  We probably stay at Ho

Alex Walking the Track

Alex walking the track

tel St. Denis again.  We hope for less rain.

I suggest you go sometime to see the city, if not the race.

A votre sante!

Too fast to focus

 

Trip to Cooperstown, NY – March 21 thru 24, 2013

Between March 21st and 24th we found ourselves spending some down time in Cooperstown, NY.  Alex was looking at graduate schools so Cheri and I kicked back and toured the area.  We had a very nice trip.  I’m not sure I would spend a week here, but there was a lot to do that didn’t necessarily have to involve baseball.  Of course, if you wanted to see everything there is to know about baseball, you would be in the right place.  The funny thing is we were there for the better part of four days and never set foot in the baseball hall of fame.  Maybe next time.0324131005b

We stayed at the Cooper Inn, which was wonderful.  The off-season rates are incredible, the rooms are very nice and the breakfast is great.  You can’t beat the location either, right off Main Street.  Here is the inn.

The Cooper Inn

The Cooper Inn

 

The first afternoon and night we wandered a bit, ending up at Council Rock Brewery for a beer tasting and a snack.   Council Rock is right on Rt 28 and is just getting going.  They opened in 2012 in a small store and are currently expanding the dining room.  The beer was very good.  I had the Vienna Lager (which was my least favorite – very heavyand not a lot of nuance), the All American,  very hoppy but still enjoyable with a citrus taste at the end) and the Sunken Ireland Scotch Ale (this was great, very smooth with a fruity quality – and 9% alcohol).  They’ve got a little way to go here, but they’re on the right track.

Beer list at Council Rock

Beer list at Council Rock

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Nicoletta’s Italian Cafe

Back in town we wandered looking for a good place for a cocktail and sort of struck out (pun intended!) as there are not a lot of up scale bars on main street.  We ended up at the Doubleday Cafe for a drink.  Adequate and probably good food here judging by the locals pouring in.  We wanted something a little more relaxing, and ended up crossing the street (literally) to Nicoletta’s for dinner.  Nicoletta’s is right on Main Street about  two blocks from both the Hall of Fame and our inn, in different directions.  This was perfect for what we wanted, which was a quiet and cozy restaurant with good food.  I would imagine this is far less quiet in the warmer months, but for us it was great.

Friday, March 22nd: 

We got out early and had breakfast at the Cooperstown Diner, which is classic and a must stop for at least one meal.  It is tiny, but the food is good.  This is really a throwback.  After breakfast we ended up at Bear Pond Winery and the Ommegang Brewery. Both were very good. The winery was surprising, producing some very good wines with grapes sourced from all over NY. Wilma, the 15 year old jack Russell terrier and chihuahua mix was also very cute.  The bathroom was themed like a forest, with tree limbs from the ceiling. That may seem a bit random but it really is worth a look when you’re there, ev0322131255en if you don’t have to use it.  We tried 12 wines with mixed results. The two most expensive were our least favorite. The fruit wines and the sweeter, late harvest Riesling were good. The sparkler was also excellent.

What we liked: Riesling– nice with a smooth off dry finish. Bought this.
Carpe Diem: a sparkling moscato which reminded us of Asti Spumante. We bought this.
Rrrr Riesling: sweet, but not over the top. We bought this as well to use as a dessert wine. It really had a nice level of sweetness and still finished clean.

 

What we didn’t like: the Doubleday Red DeChaunae: this was dominated by heavy, charred oak. Kind of like chewing on smoldering firewood for me.
Cab franc (05):the same overpowering oak dominating the grape. Just not a fan of this style.

They also sell all sorts of beer and wine making supplies as well as local foot products.

19 wines made on premises. Others produced for them

Meghan was a very good host. They are making some good wines. Definitely worth a stop in. Say hi to Wilma.

At Ommegang we tried some Belgian style beer and had lunch. This is a big place, with locally produced beer and a bunch of Belgian imports. The Belgian Pale Ale was exceptionally good. So was my croque Madame sandwich.  We had lunch at the brewery and the restaurant is quite good.

Ommegang Brewery

Bob Graham Antiques

 

We also found two nice shops in town. One was Bob Graham’s Antiques, a small, eclectic shop selling lamps and antiques. I bought some original die halves from the Australian gold kangaroo bullion coins produced in 1991.

Very cool and very unusual. Across the street is an excellent bookshop, Willis Monie, where I got a 7 volume historical series from the late 1800s, a French work bound in 1756, a work on the roman invasion of Britain from the 1800’s, and an early (1860), 2 volume set of Trollope’s Castle Richmond.  This price was a steal and this is a bookshop I’d like to spend a lot more time in.

Dinner was at the Otesaga Resorts Hawkeye Tavern.  The Otesaga is an old fashioned, extremely elegant lakefront resort.  Think of the resort in the movie Dirty Dancing and you’re in the ballpark (pun intended!).  While the resort proper didn’t open until April, the tavern was open and we stopped there for dinner.  In season the main dining room is a jacket required place, but the tavern is a bit more casual.  Some sort of conference was going on and the Tavern became busy during our meal, but it was still a nice, relaxing restaurant.  Our table was in the window looking back up Otsego Lake, which was snow covered and really made for a nice, romantic view.  We both had the Red Snapper special, which came with an appetizer and dessert.  For $19.99 this was an incredible value.  My appetizer alone would be worth $15 at most restaurants.  Here’s a pictorial of the meal.  We would highly recommend this.  More details on our Food Page coming soon.

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HALF! the tuna appetizer

 

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Red Snapper main course

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Layer cake dessert

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, March 23:

Started with a nice breakfast at the inn. Then we went to Fly Creek Cider Mill country store and had a nice time. We fed the ducks some corn.  The place is an old but still functioning apple cider mill, and this was their opening day. There is an abundance of different preserves, dry 0323131130amix dips, meat seasoning rubs, salsas, sauces and cheeses for sale. Almost everything was also out for sampling, which was nice. They also have quite a selection of wines,most of which are bottled for them. Tasting notes follow:

Mill Pond Riesling: from finger lakes grapes, this was a very nice off dry Riesling. Smooth with a pleasant finish it is the first year they have made it. They should keep it going, as it is quite good.

Apple: very nice pleasant taste. Off dry. The apple is enjoyable and not over the top.

Apple Cranberry: a splash of cranberry in this, the apple still dominates. It is off dry and has a bit of tartness from the cranberry. Also quite good.

Cranberry: pretty traditional cranberry wine.

Apple with black currant: this was the winner here. This wine has a lot of complexity. If you didn’t know it you might

Some wines at Fly Creek

Some wines at Fly Creek

think it was a grape wine. There term was a finish of what they termed ‘whiskey barrel’. Not sure I would have picked that term but I don’t disagree. Unusual in a good way. We bought one to bring home and stump the guests some night.

Fat Frog Red: sangria like with the Concord grape dominating. Sweet and tasty in a fruit punch on the deck in summer kind of way.

Cider Mill Rose: this wine from NY grapes is quite nice. Crisp and off dry it finishes with nice flavors. Would make a good sipping wine.

Apple Frost: the apple version of an ice wine. While it is good it wasn’t my favorite.

Wines ranges from $12.99 to $19.99 for the ice wine.

 

Next stop: Rustic Ridge Winery in Burlington Flats NY

This is a very nice, small winery which works with producers from the Finger Lakes region. They really make some nice wines here, and we were kind of blown away by the overall quality. Here are the wines:

Cheri at Rustic Ridge
Cheri at Rustic Ridge

Chardonnay: this is their unoaked version. And it is nice and crisp with some citrus. It also has some good length and finishes clean and smooth. Very nice. $11.99 and good value.

Semi dry Riesling: this had a tiny bit of spice at the end of a really nice, off dry flavor profile. Classic Riesling. Really good and we bought some of this to take home. $11.99 and a really good value.

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The tasting counter at Rustic Ridge

Sweet Blueberry Wine: very nice dessert wine which had very pure blueberry flavors but was not overly sweet. Some of these are cloyingly sweet. This is not.

Native Port: made from native Concord grapes, this was the only miss of the tasting for me. I didn’t like it. The concord doesn’t work well with the brandy fortification.

Untamed Red: wow, this was really good,especially for the money. Nice nose and palate of good fruit. Medium bodied and quite long. It would be good with a steak. $11.99 and a good value, which we took advantage of.

Pinot Noir (08): lighter with a lot of spice, this could have passed for a Syrah. Would pare great with anything beef.

Lemberger (09): the owner’s wife thought this was a blend of Cab. Sauvignon and something else. Whatever it is it works. This is medium bodied with a very expressive flavor profile featuring red and black fruit and oak. There is also a little tannin at the end. Very, very long. Actually really, really nice and we bought a few. This would be a winner on any winery’s list, no matter where you were. $17.99 and worth it.

Cabernet Sauvignon: also really nice, although a small step behind the Lemberger. Very similar flavor profile but the oak tends to dominate a little too much. Still impressive.

Merlot: see above. Almost identical to the cab for me, although the finish was not quite as long and there were some smoother merlot fruit flavors. It was also a little lighter than the Lemberger.

This was a great tasting and they are really doing some great things. Go here if you’re in the area.

On the way back to town we stopped at Man Cave Antiques, which had a great selection of collectibles.

Man Cave Antiques

Man Cave Antiques

Lots of old signs and some unusual items were for sale.  We bought an inexpensive English Ale sign for Alex.  There was a rather beat up Orange Crush vintage thermometer sign there as well, and I kind of regret not getting that.

Lunch at Bocca Osteria:

We arrived kind of in the middle of the afternoon, so it was almost empty. We sat at the bar, which was a very nice carera marble topped small bar, but well stocked. The menu was classic Italian, with pasta, pizza and paninis. I had a glass of red wine and we ordered the crab and crawfish cakes, a Cesar salad and the Margherita pizza. Everything was excellent. The sauce for the crab cakes especially so. The pizza also stood out, with crushed tomato sauce and dollops of mozzarella.  The restaurant has a modern decor that really works. We’ll try it for dinner sometime when we’re in the area again. Definitely recommended.

Coffee at Stagecoach Coffee:

Just off the main drag in Cooperstown is Stagecoach,a very nice coffee shop with a good assortment of baked goods and excellent coffee. The only drawback was that the wifi wasn’t working. The seating area is nice and comfy though, so bring a book (for those that remember what those are). A good place to kill an hour or two.

Dinner at Alex and Ika’s:

Alex and Ika’s

Right on Main Street at the opposite end from the Hall of Fame is Alex and Ika’s.  It had received good reviews and was recommended by the Inn, so we tried it.  It was also right across from the walking path to our Inn, so it couldn’t be more convenient.  This has a bistro kind of feel, with food and drink moving quickly and lots of people.

It was crowded in March, so it must be very crowded in summer.  We managed to snag the last to seats at the bar and had an excellent time.  The food was very good, with some unusual items.  I had the fish tacos and Cheri went with a cesar salad with chicken.  Someone next to us had the lamb rib chops, and they looked heavenly.  Next time for sure.  We also recommend Alex and Ika’s, but you might have to wait.

Summary: Cooperstown is a nice, quiet town in the winter with some excellent dining options and a number of places to visit.  We enjoyed ourselves very much, and if Alex goes to school there we will be back fairly regularly over the next couple of years.  It might be a completely different experience in the summer, and based on some conversations with friends it is, but there is also a lot more to do in the warmer months as many of the museums and historical sites open for the season.  The main drag is quaint (see below) and there are some interesting shops.  Oneonta is about a half hour away, Albany about 1 hour 15 minutes, and Saratoga Springs about an hour and a half.

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A nice place to visit, even if you are not a baseball fan.

 

Christmas Trip to Winston Salem North Carolina – Dec 24-28, 2012

Christmas 2012 brought a quick excursion down to Winston Salem, North Carolina to visit our daughter and soon to be son-in-law.  We had hoped it would bring some warmer weather as well, since we were expecting snow in Rhode Island.  That really didn’t happen though, as it was cold and rainy for most of the trip.  There was not any snow though.

Me at Childress Vineyards
Neil at Childress Vineyards

After an uneventful flight and rental car pick up we stopped on the way from Charlotte at Childress Vineyards in Lexington, right off Exit 89 from Route 52.  This is a very beautiful property, the only drawback being the proximity to the highway.  It is also a relatively newer property, being built as a winery and restaurant from the ground up.  The restaurant, The Bistro, serves good food in a nice setting, with all glass walls looking out over the vineyards.  In the summer they have music and plenty of space to picnic.  All the wines are from estate grapes.  You can take a tour and then a tasting in their beautiful tasting room and store.  It really is a spectacular building and grounds.  The vineyards themselves are equally pristine.

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Store and Tasting Room at Childress

We stopped for lunch first and Cheri had a crab cake and salad.  She pronounced both excellent.  Alex and I split some Calamari and then we both had Richard’s Roast Beef sandwich, with Fontina, Caramelized Onions, Hot Pepper Jam, and Au Jus dipping sauce on Ciabatta Bread.  This was also excellent.  We’ve eaten here twice now and both times it has been good.  No wine was consumed at dinner however as we had to do a tasting right afterward.

We choose the select tasting, which went through their dry select and reserve wines.  They have several tiers of wines at Childress, ranging from table to their Signature Series.  The Signature Series is not generally available, however we did get a chance to try the Signature 2009 Meritage.  They get a little steep at the top, with the Signature wines coming in just under $50.  I can’t say I would pay that for this wine, but it was good.  More on that in a bit.

All three of us tasted the same wines, and generally agreed.  We ran through the following:

2010 Barrel Select Sauvignon Blanc: Pale yellow, nice fruit, very smooth.  A good white wine.

2010 Reserve Chardonnay: 10 months in oak and you can tell.  If you like the heavy, buttery, oaky chardonnay style you’ll like this.

Three: this is a Cab Franc/Merlot/Malbec blend.  Light in body and color this did not present much in the way of developed flavors.  I was not a fan.

Pinnacle: a Bordeaux style blend.  This was one of my favorites as it presented a pretty classic Bordeaux aroma and flavor profile.  It was still rather light in body however, a characteristic of all the wines (except the dessert styles).

Barrel Select Cabernet Sauvignon: Again medium bodied, it had some nice fruit and soli length.  Overall I enjoyed this and it was on sale for $10.95.  Not bad at this price point.

2009 Reserve Merlot: we’re still not getting a full bodied wine in the reserve series, but that is the style here.  This was deep garnet in color with classic merlot flavors, with some rich earthy tones.

The Signature Meritage
The Signature Meritage

2009 Signature Meritage: this is one of the flagship wines at Childress.  Again it was medium bodied, but really presented some great aromas, with hard candy coming to mind for me.  Brilliant red in color it had a little tannin  noticeable, which was unusual based on the other wines tasted.  Overall a really good wine, but rather pricey at $49.95.  I don’t think I would add this to my cellar at that price point, as I can put down a bottle of 2009 Justin Isosceles around the same price, and the Justin is in a whole different league.

Late Harvest Viognier: they really lost me here.  I love dessert wines, especially port, but this was just undrinkable.  It tasted like simple syrup, with no fruit flavor and nothing but an overpowering taste of sugar water.  Maybe you pour it over ice cream. I really did not like it.

Starbound: another desert wine, this was better with blueberry pie flavors.  For me it was still a little too sweet.  I would not buy it.

To summarize this trip to Childress, we were not overly impressed.  Part of that is the fact that we like big, full bodied wines, and that simply is not the style here.  Some were good, and some were not.  I have to say that the Cab at the sale price of $10 was a good deal.  I’m also a fan of their Cabernet Franc, which we didn’t taste but had tried a year earlier.  Back then I thought their Cab Franc was the best one I had ever had.  So we bought a bottle of their regular Cab Franc, their Reserve Cab Franc and a few Cabernet Sauvignons for the trip.  The regular bottle of Franc was opened and was very good.  The Reserve bottle flew home with us – we’ll let you know how that is when we open it.

We would recommend stopping by Childress if you are in the area.  Good food and some good wines.  It’s not consistent across the board though, so do a tasting and figure out what you like.

After the winery we continued to Winston Salem and visited with the family.  The highlight of the day was Christmas Eve dinner, which we celebrated at an excellent restaurant right next to downtown Winston Salem: Bernardin’s.  This is located in an old house, the Zevely House, and has kept it’s small rooms with their individual fireplaces, creating a series of small dining rooms. You can visit their website here.  When you walk in you are in the bar/lounge area, which has a couple of small couches in front of the fire and a smallish but well stocked bar.  We had a nice table for five in the front parlor.  Some drinks to settle in led to ordering dinner, and this is not easy as the choices are many and all sound wonderful.  That doesn’t even include the specials.

We ended up with caesar salads for two of us, and a goat cheese napoleon for Cheri.  All were good.  Dinners consisted of grouper, shrimp and scallop pasta, salmon and one of the specials – the kangaroo in Indian Tandoori sauce.  Everything was great, especially the kangaroo (in my opinion since I had that).  Dessert was homemade chocolate ice cream, which was also excellent and not overly chocolaty.  All in all this was a great meal.  When you consider the service was outstanding and the atmosphere impeccable we have found a regular place to dine when we are in Winston Salem.

One way to know a restaurant is excellent is to see how the guess the check game goes at the end.  Alex loves to do this, and we invariably take guesses as to what the total bill is.  At Bernardin’s all five of us guessed too high, some by a lot.  Clearly this restaurant presents great value.  We highly recommend it.

We spent  Christmas day lounging at our daughter’s apartment while they made us dinner.  This I highly recommend as well.  It made for a quiet day.  When nightfall came we Tanglewood Festival of Lights Presented by BB&Tdecided to pack up and take the drive to the Festival of Lights in Tangelwood Park.  To be fair the lights were pretty impressive, much better than I expected.  However, you drive through the long exhibit in single file line, and we had someone in front of us who was stopping to take multiple pictures at every display.  What should have been an enjoyable 20-30 minute drive through the lights turned into a 75 minute traffic jam.  We were one miserable carload by the time we emerged.  I strongly suggest going, but not on Christmas day.  Try a week or two before the actual holiday.  It was $15 per car, so it’s also very affordable.

Following a relaxing Christmas Day we had planned to take the one hour drive to the outlets to do some shopping.  Mother nature had other ideas however, as it was absolutely pouring, so we headed to Hanes Mall two minutes down the road and did some shopping anyway.  Everyone snagged something, and then we split up for dinner.  The kids headed to Golden Corral, by choice, and we headed to a wine bar we had found online and which was only a block from our hotel.

The wines at 6th & Vine

Serving an excellent selection of wines, 6th and Vine has all the vibes of a great wine bar.  There is a long bar, tables up front , in back and in several cozy alcove type settings as well as a small wine shop.  We started with a couple of different wines, the 2010 Concha y Toro Gran Reserva Malbec and the 2010 Santa Christo Garnacha.  These were two of the 24 reds available by the glass (there were also 21 whites).  Both were good and very different, with the Concha y Toro full bodied and sporting deep fruit flavors and the garnacha medium bodied with cherry flavors.  We would probably buy both of these.  We followed that up with a 3 wine tasting, selecting 2011 Santa Luz Pinot Noir (very complex for an inexpensive pinot and delicious), the 2011 Line 39 Petite Syrah (somewhat closed but good fruit and will get better – somehow we always like Petite Syrah and need to drink more of it) and the 2010 Vinaceous “Red Right Hand” Blend (also closed down, but almost completely with some acid and length, but nothing here appealed to us).  We finished with a glass of the Ramon Bilbao Crianza 2009.  We almost always like Rioja and this was no exception , with pretty classic Rioja flavors even though it was 100% Tempranillo – somewhat unusual.  I would drink this all day long – overall it is a very nice wine.

So the wine went well, as we tried six different wines during our two hours there, and the bartenders were great.  Unfortunately we needed some food too and this did not go well.  We started with a crab cake for Cheri while I tried the tuna special (seared ahi with a hoisin  sauce).  Cheri pronounced the crab cake poor, with more breading than crab and a sub-par sauce.  My tuna was downright terrible.  There was a streak of sinewy like stuff running through the middle of it.  When you order a piece of tuna you should be able to cut it with a fork never mind a knife.  I couldn’t cut it with either.  The hoisin sauce tasted like it was right out of a bottle.  We gave them a second chance with a custom flatbread order, a simple Margherita Pizza.  This was passable, but chunky with a tasteless crust.

While we enjoyed the wine and the ambience, we would absolutely not eat here again.  It’s too bad, it really has a lot going for it.  It was also somewhat busy for a Thursday night, so maybe we just got an unlucky streak.  If you are in the neighborhood and try it hopefully you’ll have better luck.

westbend vineyardsFor our last day in Winston Salem we drove out to Westbend Vineyards, which offers both estate grown wines as well as an onsite brewery and several beers.  Smaller than Childress by a lot it has a quaint feel to it and is very friendly.  Their website is here. We started in the brewery and Alex ran through the sampler, liking the German Wheat, the English Style IPA and the Seasonal Ale.  He had a pint of the German Wheat (even though I was 11:30 in the morning – but hey , I was about to do a wine tasting).  Cheri and I followed by tasting the dry wines the vineyard had to offer.  They were all lighter in style than I typically like, but some were quite good.

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The tasting room and store at Westbend

The Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc were simply too light, with little to offer on either the nose or the palate.  The Barrel Fermented Chardonnay brought home the heavy, oaky, buttery profile of oaked chards, and if you like that style it was good.  We don’t like that style personally.  The stainless fermented chardonnay was lighter and crisper as you would expect,

The vineyards at Westbend
The vineyards at Westbend

but it didn’t really come across well either.  The reds fared better, although they remained lighter bodied.  The merlot had classic, earthy merlot flavors.  The pinot noir was quite good for a lighter pinot and the “Les Soeurs” Cabernet Sauvignon had some nice fruit and good length.  The clear winner was the Vintner’s Family Reserve however, and this blend of 62% Merlot, 28% Cab Franc and 10%Cab Sauvignon was delicious.  It was still not full

Neil at Westbend Vineyards and Brewhouse
Neil at Westbend Vineyards and Brewhouse

bodied though.  It was very, very long.  The finish just kept going forever with this wine, and I had a glass of a dessert wine waiting in front of me for a while because I wanted to see how long it would go.  It was a long time.  Overall this last wine was similar to the Signature Meritage from Childress, good but pricey at almost $50.  I don’t think I would buy it but thanks to the people at Westbend for letting us try it.

We finished with that dessert wine, and unlike those at Childress this was excellent.  The Aquarius tasted like tawny port, and was simply delicious.  This I would buy.

Overall we liked the winery a lot.  They had some good wines, a very warm atmosphere and a good brewery.  We think this is worth the visit.

We had lunch at Foothills Brewery in downtown Winston Salem.  This was pretty typical for a good brewery, both in beer and pub style food.  You can check out their website here. The afternoon was spent antiquing and comic book shopping, both favorite pastimes of Alex and myself.  Dinner was TexMex, and it was excellent at an incredibly inexpensive restaurant near my daughter’s apartment, talk about value.  The restaurant is Monte De Rey located at 4922 Country Club Rd, Winston-Salem, NC 27104.  If you like mexican food try this, you won’t be disappointed.

All in all this was a great trip with some good wine and food, and some not so good wine and food.  We really recommend Bernardin’s and Monte De Rey.  If you’re going to a winery Westbend is worth the trip.

A votre sante!

 

Weekend in Kennebunkport, Maine    Nov 9-12, 2012

We headed up as planned to Kennebunkport, Maine, this past weekend for an anniversary getaway.  It’s been a good 10 years or so since we were there, and that was during a record cold spell on New Years day which meant we really didn’t see much.  This was a chance to meander a bit around the village and get to know it more up close and personal.  We tend to try and do that everywhere we go.

Our plans changed a bit on Friday when I was calling the inn to arrange for a rose in the room and noticed a new special on their website.  In November if you stayed for two nights you got a third night free!  Seemed like a good deal to me so I texted Cheri at work and she met me at home for a quick packing event, followed by an unexpected Friday night trip up to Kennebunkport.  As expected the traffic on Rt 128 around Boston was terrible, and it took about 45 minutes longer to make the trip than it should have, but getting there a day early was great.

The last time we were there we followed some friends on the roads into town, so I really didn’t remember how to get there.  We followed the directions, went down some incredibly dark roads (there are no lights in Maine), almost turned around once due to a road closure, but persevered and were rewarded when we stumbled out of the wilderness into the village.  I have to say, Kennebunkport is a magical place at night.  Downtown is all lit up and just shimmers like an oasis of light in the black of the surrounding country.  We were kind of mesmerized, especially since we had thought we were somewhat lost and might get eaten by bears before the night was over.

We were also hungry so we stopped at the Old Vines wine bar.  The short story here is – go there.  We loved the place.  To be objective we had just traveled three+ hours after getting out of work and were very hungry and thirsty.  Regardless of that this place is fabulous, and just to prove it we went back again on Sunday.  Everything works, from the atmosphere to the staff to the food and certainly the beverages.  A detailed review can be found on the Restaurant page here.  Think of a fun, sophisticated without pretention, comfortable place where you feel like you’re hanging out with your close friends and everything is right with the world.  The wine list is another aspect which makes this place great.

After some justly deserved food and drink we drove the short distance through town to our accommodations at the Maine Stay Inn and Cottages.  So far we were batting two for two.  The inn had left our cottage room open, with the porch light on, and the key was on the bed.  We had previously arranged for breakfast to be delivered to the room at 10 the next morning, so there was little to do but get a good night’s sleep, and the bed was very comfy.  The room the first night was OK.  We tend to prefer luxurious rooms when we stay at inns, with fireplaces and soaking tubs.  For Friday night we took what was available (which was a good room),  we switched rooms for Saturday and Sunday, and the second room was everything we look for in a romantic place to stay.  That’s one of the neat things about the Maine Stay, they have a wide range of rooms that vary from a family cottage to a very luxurious suite.  We would definitely stay here again.  You can read more details about the Maine Stay on our blog or at their website.  Think comfortable, convenient and a super friendly and helpful staff.  If you like the B&B feel you can go over to the dining room and have breakfast with other guests.  If you’re more into your privacy you can have it delivered to a cottage.  There’s a lot of options here.

Saturday was walk around Kennebunkport day.  It was a beautiful sunny day and quite comfortable with just a jacket.  There are a lot of shops downtown, which sell everything you can pretty much imagine and would expect in a quaint New England village tourist destination.  What’s nice is that there is a lot of quality represented in the shops.  We saw many things that would have been perfect for coming home with us, had the budget been a little more lenient.  Of particular note was the art gallery, where they had several paintings we liked a lot as well as a wide range of wind sculptures we really liked a lot.  These were fun just to look at.  They start at about $300 and go up from there, but are very cool.  When we redo our backyard and put in the patio I can see one of the smaller sculptures finding a home there.  So you can buy clothes, housewares, art, toys, innumerable trinkets and gifts,  hardware if so inclined and also pick up your prescription.  There’s an equally varied selection of restaurants, ranging from the aforementioned Old Vines winebar to TexMex, classic New England seafood, Thai, Italian and general American food.

After shopping for a while we had lunch at Hurricane, right on the main drag and overlooking the estuary.  A nice window table gave us a great view of the tide coming in.  Lunch was excellent.  While the service was slow (as the place was jammed even at 2 in the afternoon) the server acknowledged it, apologized and it became kind of a running joke.  We were certainly not in a hurry.  I had a split of prosecco to go with my half

The Back Door at Hurricane

dozen oysters and ceasar salad.  Cheri also had the ceasar salad, but hers had a half lobster on it.  Of course I had to shell her lobster for her, but really a small price to pay for such beautiful and engaging company.  Everything was very good.  This is also a serious wine establishment.  There were Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence lined up on one wall (eight years running).  Even more telling was the fact that there were large format bottles all over the place.  I saw at least five double magnums as well as an imperial of some Australian Shiraz I’ve never heard of sitting around on shelves and bars.  Since large format bottles are very cool, they only added to the overall impression.  Hurricane is a must visit.

Shopping filled another couple of hours until we went for a cocktail at One Dock, the tavern at the Kennebunkport Inn.  Visually a very beautiful building, the bar looked inviting and it was happy hour.  (Note: it is apparently happy hour everywhere in Kennebunkport about this time of day).  Unfortunately this was one of the down experiences of the trip.  Cheri had a glass of the Atlas Cabernet from the happy hour list,  which we had never heard of but we’re not wine snobs.  The bottle of everyday wine on our kitchen counter frequently costs less than $4.  So a quaffable glass of red wine is fine.  This was not.  It was quite possibly one of the worst wines I have ever tasted.  When the bartender put it down the color immediately said something was wrong – it looked like light red water.  It was watery, with no body and a bad, sour taste.  It’s possible just that bottle was bad or had turned bad, but I didn’t get that impression.  We informed the bartender we would need something else, and ordered another glass of the wine list.  This was passable.  Of course we had to listen to the very pretentious people next to us discuss the whole thing with the bartender.  The woman closest to Cheri couldn’t understand how we could do that, how could it be that bad?  I’m fairly certain she had never tried it.  The point is it was bad wine, and as the saying goes….

So we left.  Back at our room we opened  the bottle of the 2001 Martini Monte Rosso we had brought and had a good glass of wine.  This was interesting, as it was totally different than the last bottle we opened three years ago.  We’ll do a retrospective tasting note to highlight the differences in another blog.  It was very good, just not perfection as it used to be.  Unfortunately things change.

Cape Arundel Inn at Night (a little blurry!)

Dinner, fortunately, was exceptional.  The Cape Arundel Inn is situated right on the water with a view of the Bush Compound across a stretch of the bay.  It is a gorgeous spot, which we didn’t realize until the next day as it was pitch black out that night and we couldn’t see the ocean twenty feet from us when we got out of the car.  We could hear it though.  The dark night really offset the beauty of the inn all lit up, so it worked.  This might warrant a future visit if the rooms are in line with what we usually look for, so we’ll check that out.  The dining room is a destination worth the trip on its own.  It’s a romantic, quiet place with perfect lighting, not too dark nor too light.  Service was impeccable, the food was delicious and the prices were reasonable for the quality.  We’d would definitely go back again.  A more detailed review can be found on the Food page here.  The wine list was also good.  I started with a Cosmo while Cheri had a glass of Sangiovese,

Cape Arundel Inn with Bush Compound in Background

but we had to get a half bottle of Honig Cabernet to tide us over.  That was very good, albeit still very young.  If you’re looking for a very nice, quiet dinner give the Cape Arundel Inn a try.

The next day was a trip to the Freeport outlets for some shopping, and it started with a nice breakfast delivered to our room via basket.  This works for me, as they knock on your door, say good morning, and hand you a basket with two full, hot breakfasts, two fresh fruit cups and a small carafe of orange juice.  Breakfast of the day was a spinach and zucchini quiche (which doesn’t work for me as I HATE spinach) with some home fried potatoes and a small, freshly made cranberry muffin.  Cheri ate her quiche, I ate all the carbs.  It’s a nice relaxing way to start the day if you don’t want to join the communal table inside the main inn.

Freeport is about a 45 minute drive north from Kennebunkport, and is really easy as Routes 95 and 295 take you straight there.  The downtown area is basically a very charming and spread out outlet mall.  Many are in older buildings which have been

The Main Road in Freeport – Shopping Everywhere

converted to stores.  To power shop you’re going to have to walk around.  Also, most of the stores are smaller than some other outlets, such as the one in Wrentham, MA which is close to us.  All in all though it’s worth a trip if you are looking for some bargains.  It also has the LL Bean Flagship Store, which is huge, and actually a group of buildings.  Note that the LL Bean Headquarters is not an outlet, there is a smaller LL Bean outlet across the street.  Scattered in among the stores are some restaurants as well.

LL Bean Headquarters

We went to lunch at the Azure Café, which was recommended by someone in the Cole Hahn store and which we had seen written up online.  The menu is Italian.  Supposedly they’ve won awards for their clam chowder, and they do a Maine Seafood grill kind of thing for lunch.  They don’t do it well however.  I ordered fish and chips and received the saddest plate of food ever.  Cheri had a salad with grilled chicken that was on the very small side.  The place had little to no atmosphere either.  More details on the food page.  We do not recommend it.  If you do go order something Italian and try that, maybe that’s their specialty.

Anyway, following some successful shopping we hit the road back to Kennebunkport for the evening.  A drink sounded in order, and we tried to swing by a Brew Pub that we had seen on one of the maps.  The place really didn’t look very inviting however, so we decided to head back to town and found ourselves driving by the Old Vines Wine Bar again.  So we stopped in, again.  This was great, again.  You can see more details in the review on the food page here, but suffice it to say we would go back, again, if we lived in the area.  This wasn’t the night to hang out there however, as we really felt like a full dinner.  At the recommendation of the bartender we drove the 100 feet to the back entrance to Grissini Italian Restaurant.

Grissini has a lower room with a bar and a more intimate atmosphere, called Grotta.

Grissini Italian Restaurant

The gas fireplace was on, and we were the only ones there at the time so we sat at a high top against the wall and settled in.  There was a very cozy feel about the place.  We ordered a nice Super Tuscan and a Margherita Pizza for an appetizer.  Both were very good, the pizza especially.  For dinner Cheri had a half portion of the pasta with eggplant.  That’s one of the benefits of eating in Grotta, you can get any of the regular dinner pasta dishes as a half plate.  I of course ordered a full plate of the Arrabbiata, a bunch of shellfish over spaghetti and a spicy tomato sauce.  All very good.  Desert was maybe the best Tiramisu ever.  This is a good place and we’ll go back if we’re in the vicinity.

After that it was a relaxing night with a movie in the Jacuzzi tub.  They have a flat screen right above it for you viewing pleasure in Cabin 5 at the Maine Stay.

Monday was away day, and breakfast was again delivered in a basket and very good.  There was a bit of shopping left in us and as we had to drive through Kittery on the way home we stopped at the outlets there.  These are not as quaint as the ones in Freeport.  They’re spread out on both sides of a four lane road, and require a lot of driving and parking if you want to go to a lot of them.  It wasn’t appealing to us so we picked up a few things and headed out to lunch at the Shipyard Brew Pub.  This is about 5 minutes away from the Outlet craziness and worth the trip if you want to have a quiet lunch.  Basic cheddar bacon burgers and good beer are the staples, but the menu is varied.  The burgers were quite good and we left full and content for the ride home, which fortunately was uneventful.

Overall we would rate the Kennebunkport area high as far as an appealing destination.  There is a lot of scenic beauty, some quaint villages and some very good restaurants.  The next trip will probably be in the summer where we can take advantage of some of the parks and hiking opportunities.  Maybe we’ll take the whole family up for a few days.

Cheri at the Maine Stay