My season of traveling Part I – San Diego, CA, Rochester, NY and Chattanooga, TN

Hello friends and people, I’m back.  Sorry I’ve been off the grid for a while, it’s been a busy season at work and things have just started to wind down.  Of course my sales season wouldn’t have been complete without a little work travel and I’m here to give you a quick recap of where I’ve been over the past few months.  I won’t get too detailed because in all honesty many of the work trips required a lot of actual working so there’s not a whole lot to write about when you’re spending most of your time at Hampton Inns.  But I can give you a few highlights.

San Diego, CA
U.S.S. Midway Museum
Price of Admission: $18 Adults, $15 Senior Citizens, $10 Retired Military and Children (online rates are a dollar cheaper)

San Diego, CA probably gets the prize for best weather all year long in the U.S.  When I was there in January, it was a nice and warm low-80 degrees with clear skies – and from what I understand it’s always like that.  Most of my time in CA was spent at a conference so I didn’t get to the beach, but we were in the Gaslight District which is a vibrant bar and nightlife scene.   Aside, from all the great bars and restaurants one can try out in San Diego (several of which my company treated us to), it’s worth a walk down to the shore and going on board the U.S.S. Midway.  Yes, I’ve mentioned the ship before, but I think it’s worth getting more in-depth.  It’s much more than just a walk around the deck and seeing a few of the planes.  The museum gives you a look inside all the intricate parts of the aircraft carrier and gives you not just a lesson about the ship’s role in U.S. Navy history, but a real sense of what it was like for the common sailor on-board (you can walk through the bunks, laundry room, mess hall, everywhere).  Don’t miss a chance to also sit in several of the fighters jets and helicopters that they have on display or participate in a flight simulator dogfight with your friends.  If you have time, go and chat with one of the several veterans on board who volunteer to tell you their stories – they’re fascinating and many of them are pretty funny guys.

Rochester, NY
Dinosaur Bar-B-Que

When I asked around about places to go to eat while in Rochester, NY, I heard from three separate people to check out Dinosaur Bar-B-Que.  Now, admittedly I thought the place was some local hot spot (with a really random name), but when I showed up I realized that it was a chain.  So while I was a little disappointed, it’s not a huge chain mind you (the other locations are in New York City, Syracuse, New Jersey, and Troy, NY).  Still, I had no other leads of places to try so I gave it a go.  I will say that I was pleasantly surprised.  The atmosphere had a Applebee’s made over by a biker gang, but the crowd was a mix of all types.  The beer list was impressive, with several local northern NY brews.  The food and service was top notch as well.  My waitress was friendly, fast, and knew to be available but not be overbearing.  I gave the “Tres Hombres” combination a try and that consisted of pork, brisket and 1/4 rack of ribs, cornbread and two sides – I went with mac and cheese and mashed potatoes.  There was a LOT of food – but it was well worth the calories (you can try the smaller “Tres Ninos” combo if you’re not as hungry).  The different BBQ sauces that were on the table really hit the spot, but my two favorites were there Slathering Sauce and the Wango Tango Habenero (this stuff was sweet and super spicy).  The meats all melted in your mouth, but I’ll say that the ribs were probably the best of the three.  The mac and cheese was also a stand out and I would tell anyone that one of the sides must be that (though one could argue that the gravy that came with the potatoes made that side dish better).  I could certainly see how this place, with his comfort food and warm, friendly atmosphere is popular spot on cold winter days in Rochester.  Grade: B

Chattanooga, TN
Ruby Falls
Price of Admission: $17.95 for adults, $9.95 for children under 12 (babies free, but I probably wouldn’t bring a baby)

On my flight into Chattanooga, TN, I sat next to a local lawyer who gave me some leads on how to spend a few free hours in the city.  He, like most of the people that I met from Chattanooga, had a sort of “really, this place is much nicer that you might think” way of talking.  I’ll say this much – I probably wouldn’t target Chattanooga as a place to go out of my way to visit.  BUT I will also say that it is a quaint little town with some pretty interesting things to see if you’re there for a couple days.  And from what I understand and saw for myself, it’s a great place for the outdoorsy types.  I didn’t try it myself, but apparently hang gliding is one of the big hobbies for the folks in Chattanooga.  But don’t bother with going to the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, unless you happen to be down that way. But if you do happen to be down that way and see the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, stop into The Terminal Brewhouse.  They had some great drafts and one of the better BBQ Chicken pizzas I’ve ever had.

One of the highlights for me was a side trip to Ruby Falls.  It’s clearly one of the main tourist attractions (the other being Rock City) and the city lets you know it with the 247 or something billboards I saw on the highways directing visitors to see check it out (that was an exaggeration, but it was a s**tload).   The drive to Ruby Falls is quick from downtown Chattanooga and when I arrived, I had no idea that Ruby Falls wasn’t really outdoors!  Apparently, the waterfall that’s advertised is actually the country’s tallest underground waterfall.  Now I’m not claustrophobic, but for you folks that are keep this in mind.   To see the Ruby Falls, you have to take an elevator ride 1120 feet underground into a very tight, winding cave.  If you’re okay with that, then you’re good to go.  So a group of us took the elevator down to the dark cavern and in order to get to the waterfall, the guide takes you through some really neat tunnels with extraordinary rock formations.  Our guide, Andy, gave us a little history and while his smart-ass humor was annoying at first, after a while it became more tolerable and by the end you couldn’t help but be amused by his personality.  When we got to the cave with the waterfall, it’s pitch black and pretty creepy.  There’s a little dramatic audio presentation to get you pumped up, and then the lights come on and Voila!  I’ll say, I was pretty awe-struck by the waterfall when I saw it.  They did a really good job with the lighting and making the water look like falling crystals.  It was quite…majestic (for some reason I really can’t think of a better word that isn’t as cheesy).  As you walk around and underneath the waterfall itself, you have to take a look up at the water coming down.  You’ll get a little wet, but it’s worth the sight.  It’s almost like you’re looking at the stars while traveling at warp speed, Star Trek style.  So if you’re ever in Chattanooga for any weird reason, give the Ruby Falls a few hours of your time.

The Eiffel Tower Experience

The Eiffel Tower is open every single day of the year

  • from 9 a.m. to midnight from 17 June to 28 August,
  • from 9:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. during the rest of the year,
  • At Easter weekend and during the Spring holidays : extended opening hours to midnight.

Obviously when one goes to Paris for the first time, a visit to the Eiffel Tower is a must-do activity.  You can’t not go and see it.  It’d be like going to New York City for the first time and not going to the Empire State Building.  Of course because it was holiday week when we were there, pretty much everyone in the world was thinking the same thing.  The base of the Eiffel Tower was packed with hundreds of people and the lines were long, like Disney World’s Space Mountain long.

Here’s a tip for any monument or museum visits in Paris (including the Eiffel Tower): Get tickets in advance online.  You’ll save yourself a ton of time and from a ton of hassle.   The first thing we had to figure out was which of the winding lines to stand in (and also try to find the end of each one).  It was like navigating through serpents of people.  Once we got into a line, we asked the people around us if we were in the right line.  If they spoke English – which was like a one in three chance – most of the time they shrugged and were clearly just as lost as we were.  At the same time other people were asking us the same question in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese – you name it.  And each time, we gave the same answer we were given – we just shrugged and said we didn’t know for sure.  It was kind of a hilarious scene – all these different races coming together in confusion despite the language barrier, and all sort of politely making the best of the scenario standing in mysterious lines that led to who knows where.

My sister was our recon soldier and when she came back to the line she let us know we had waited half an hour in the wrong one (figures right?).  Turns out there were four total lines – two go to the elevator that takes you to the 2nd floor (not the top) and two that let you walk to the 2nd floor.  So once we made our way over to the new line, we waited about an hour and a half.  If you’re going to visit the Eiffel Tower during the cold season – dress warmly.  It was very cold, and very windy.  Also, make sure to bring some reading material, Ipod, and a snack (croissant was my snack of choice) because you’ll probably want to do something to make the time standing out there go by a little faster.  

Once we got to the front, there was a sign that said, “Due to congestion we will not sell lift tickets to the top, only to the second floor.”  A few curses were tossed around by everyone in line, but at that point because we made it to the front we figured we may as well go up to at least the midsection of the Eiffel Tower.  The price for the lift ride to the 2nd floor is 8 Euros, the price for the ride to the top is 13 Euros (the price to walk to the 2nd floor is 4 Euros – you can’t walk all the way to the top).

The midsection of the Eiffel Tower is actually quite large and includes a cafe, bathrooms, gift shop, and the lift to the very shi-shi Le Jules Verne restaurant (we tried to get reservations, but the place gets booked months in advance).  We learned that we would be able to buy tickets to the top from the 2nd floor (for the additional 5 Euros) once the top cleared out a bit.  So we waited on the 2nd floor for another hour or so with some hot chocolate and snacks we bought at the cafe.  We waited in another line for about half an hour to get the tickets to the top and then an additional half hour for the elevator to the top.

Now if you’re queasy about heights, I should warn you.  The ride in the glass elevator to the top is a little unsettling.  I’m not that bothered by heights (see previous post about Skydiving), but even this ride is unnerving.  You can view some videos of the ride up and down on the Here and There Facebook page.  Once you get through the ride and to the top, the view is magnificent.   The 2nd floor view is good, but the extra height at the top really makes the birds-eye view of Paris spectacular.  There’s an outside patio that you can walk around on and a champagne bar for the romantic couples (or just tourists who are celebrating actually finally making it to the top).  But it is quite windy, and you should be prepared for the fact that if you’re unlucky, the visibility can be bad depending on weather conditions (we met some poor guy who had been up there the previous day and said he couldn’t see a thing).

Finally, if you’re able to get to the Eiffel Tower at night make sure to check it out at the top of the hour.  For six minutes the tower shimmers in magnificent fashion.  We didn’t know this until we took a night time bus tour that happened to go by the tower during this time (hence the not so great pictures of it from the bus below), so don’t miss a chance to see it.

So in summary, make sure to allot plenty of time in your day when you see the Eiffel Tower, especially if you don’t get tickets in advance (there really was like no line for people who had bought tickets in advance.  It’s amazing how many people around the world didn’t think to do that beforehand).  But it is worth the wait to say that you’ve been to the top of one of the most recognizable monuments in the world.

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Lagos, Portugal – Bars and Beaches

Lagos is a fantastic place to unwind for a few days, especially after a week of hiking around Lisbon and Porto.  Although there are a few historic sights (such as the town museum and the first slave market), the beaches and bars are pretty much the main reason to go to Lagos.  No need to worry about language issues, everyone there speaks English because it’s such a huge U.K. tourist spot.  In fact, most of the owners of the bars and restaurants are English-born.  Here’s a summary of the places we went to:

– The types of beaches around Lagos range from expansive and sandy to rocky and secluded.  First thing I’ll note about the beaches is that they are free, and they are also topless, so if you have kids that you don’t want to get exposed to that – probably best not to even bother with Lagos.  That isn’t to say that they aren’t family friendly – there were several families at all the beaches in Lagos.

If you’re looking for the family friendly (less topless women), large beach head to Praia do Portode Mos.  It’s at the far end of town, so it’s a little bit of a hike, but once you get there the sand is the finest and whitest and the beach stretches for probably around a mile.  While there are a few restaurants along the beach for you to eat at, they’re not very good.  The service is slow because they’re always packed and understaffed and the food is the equivalent to cheap diner food.  This beach is also the windiest because there’s nothing blocking the breeze coming in from the Mediterranean.

For two more secluded beaches check out Praia Dona Ana and Praia do Camillo.  Dona Ana has practically no wind because its in it’s own little alcove.  The same goes for Praia do Camillo, however this beach’s sand is a little bit rockier.  Both are at the bottom of pretty steep cliffs, especially the Praia do Camillo as you’ll have to hike up 90 steps when you’re done for the day.  But in my opinion these are the two nicest beaches.  They’re smaller than Praia do Portode Mos, but they’re far more beautiful with the cliffs hugging the blue water.

– If you’re looking for a little adventure, head out to Ponte de Piedad which is just a half mile past Praia do Camillo.  There you get to go out on the farthest tip of Lagos and get a great panoramic view of the coast.  If you climb down the cliff, you can take a 30 minute Grotto Boat Ride which costs 10 Euros.  The wait is a little long as each boat only holds 4-5 people, but it’s a great way to cool off and see some pretty spectacular grottoes.

– The bar scene is hopping in Lagos, and on weekend nights the crowd can get pretty rowdy.  There’s a bar scene for everyone with cheap drinks and various forms of entertainment.  The Three Monkeys bar is what you’d expect on any college campus – lots of booze, loud music, 20-somethings doing funnels on the bar, and other things of that nature.  Stevie Ray’s Jazz Room has an older crowd, with live music, and a more refined group of drinkers.  The live band playing there that night played a good mix of crowd pleasers from Lynard Skynard to Bon Jovi.  Stones is your typical English pub, with darts in the back, beers in the front, and a lot of Sex Pistols playing.  Zanzibar falls under the category of your New York dive bar and next door Shaker Bar has a bit of that Jamaican-stoner edge (with some damn good tropical cocktails).   DC’s is where you’ll find your hipsters playing Foosball.  All these bars are within a couple of blocks of each other in the Old Town section of Lagos.

– There are several restaurants in Old Town Lagos, but the very best one we went to was Restaurante No Patio.  Now don’t take this literally in English like we did – there is a beautiful patio out back were you can eat (No Patio means “on the patio” in Portuguese.  Yes, I felt like a complete dumbass when I asked and the waitress gave me that answer that she’s probably given hundreds of times).  Not only was the atmosphere of the restaurant great, the food lived up to the hype we had heard.  A must try for the appetizer portion is the Salmon with mango and strawberry, on top of lettuce.  The other app that is good, but not as good as the salmon, is the Prawns with garlic.  The duck I had was perfectly cooked and covered in almonds and peaches.  My friends ordered the lamb roast and pork with potatoes and they both give their two thumbs way up for those dishes. Don’t bother with the desert though – they were just okay (we tried the chocolate cake and fried bananas) and by the time you get to them you’re already so full and won’t need to add the calories.  The price of the meal is a little expensive, so make it your special dinner when you’re out in Lagos.  And make reservations!  Grade: A-


What I saw:

Beaches: Praia Dona Ana, Praia do Camillo, Praia do Portode Mos

Grotto boat ride from the Ponte de Piedad

The bars we went to in Old Town:
Three Monkey’s
Stevie Ray’s Jazz Room
Shaker Bar

Where I ate:

Restaurante No Patio
Rua Lancarote de Freitas 46
8600-605 Lagos

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Lagos, Portugal – Costa D’Oiro Ambiance Village

After Porto, we proceeded down to the southern coast to the Algarve region of Portugal.  The Algarve is made up of several cities along the Mediterranean, and the town we chose to spend our last few days was called Lagos (considered by many to be the most beautiful of them all).

To get to Lagos we had to take a 5 hour train ride down to Tunes, and then transfer to a local train (which runs hourly) to get to the beach town.  The local train that takes you there actually is on the line that runs through all the towns in the Algarve region and takes about another hour to get from Tunes to Lagos.  There are more direct trains to Lagos from Lisbon, but not from Porto Porto.  When we got to Lagos, we realized quickly that there were not a slew of taxis waiting for passengers at the train station, so note: Have the hotel’s number that you’re staying at ready to go.  Give them a call and have them get a taxi over to the train station to pick you up.

Lagos is definitely a beach town and during the peak season (which is when we were there) the town is packed with European tourists.  Although all the guide books warned us of this, and although it was busy, at no time did the crowds ever feel claustrophobic or oppressive.  While the main part of the town was packed with bars, the outer part consisted of several beautiful beaches, all with their own unique properties.  I’ll go over the beaches in the next post, but for now I have to talk about the place we stayed at.

Costa D’Oiro Ambiance Village is a great little resort with a good location.  It’s walking distance from both the beaches and the bar scene, but it’s far enough from the main center that you’ll be able to get a good night sleep and not have to listen to the partying crowds.  If you’re looking for that scene, don’t stay at Costa D’Oiro.  Find a hostel near the main square.  Costa D’Oiro is much more relaxed and more suited to the families rather than the backpacking college kid.

What made this hotel stand out from the rest of the places we stayed in Portugal was the size of our hotel room.  I wouldn’t even call it a room, it was more of a suite with a full kitchen, fully stocked with all the cooking supplies we could have needed, living room with satellite TV, spacious two bedroom with another satellite TV, porch and outside area with a table.   They also offered a full complimentary breakfast in the morning (with all you can drink mimosas), but don’t bother with their restaurant – the food there is so so.

The price was reasonable: 198 Euros ($277) a night for that huge room.


Where I stayed:

Costa D’Oiro Ambiance Village
Rua Costa D’Oiro, Lote 38
8600 – 544 Lagos
+351 282 770 079

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Porto, Portugal Part II

If you plan accordingly, you can definitely do Porto in a couple of days, and a must-do is to  dedicate at least a few hours to visiting the port wine caves across the river.  You should also take the time to visit a few of the churches as well, each costing only a few euros to enter.  Here’s what we covered on our second day:

Torre Dos Clerigos is the highest point in Porto and on a nice day, for great picture opportunities, take the 225 steps to the top for a fantastic panoramic view of the city.  Once again, if you’re injured, I would avoid this attraction.  The stairs get very, very narrow as you get to the top, and people coming up and down have to negotiate their way awkwardly by each other.

– Just down the hill from Clerigos is the Igreja de Sao Francisco.  On the outside, the church looks like an austere, boring fortress; don’t let that fool you.  Once inside, the church interior is made up of intricate gold columns and altars.   Don’t miss the catacombs if you’re looking to really freak yourself out.  If you go in the catacombs, it’s doesn’t like like anything totally crazy at first, but find your way to the back and you’ll see a part of the floor that’s clear plastic.  If you look down – look closely and you’ll see that the entire level below is FULL of bones.

– The port wine cellars are the highlight of any trip to Porto.  With over a dozen port wine cellars in the city, you have plenty of places to choose from.  They’re all easily accessible from the river, where their mock 18th-century port wine boats stay docked (for decoration, not actual usage).  Along the river are several maps of where each company is located and there are tourist booths with guides to tell you where to go.

Now I’ll be the first to tell you, you only really need to do a few of the wine cellars because they’re all very similar.  Each guide book will tell you different must-do places, but you’ll get to a certain degree the same thing.  All the port wine caves offer tours and tastings; some are free and some require a small fee (Truth be told though, the more expensive the tour, the better the quality of the tour), and you do need to look ahead for the hours because the times they give tours vary.

The first port wine company we went to was Ramos Pinto, but they were under construction so they weren’t offering tours.  Apparently, Ramos Pinto is the port wine company that many of the native Portuguese drink, so if you’re in Porto give this place a try.  So instead, we walked over to Taylor’s.  Just FYI, Taylor’s is located probably the furthest from the water, and it is a little bit of an uphill to get there.  But they do offer a free tour which offered probably the most bare boned info of all the tours we did that day with a free tasting at the end.  It was also an hour wait before the next English speaking tour when we arrived, so we had to eat lunch in their dining room, which was “okay”.  Their ruby port sangria was very good though.

Our second port wine cellar was Offley, which was 2.50 Euros.  The tour was longer than Taylor’s and the guide spoke far better English, making the tour much more interesting.  It was a little longer too, with a little more information on the history of port in general and not just about the company.

Our final port wine stop was Sandeman, probably the world’s most recognizable port wine brand due in part from their recognizable ads.  This tour and tasting costs 4.50 Euros.  Sandeman’s wine cave is easily the most modern looking, and the tour guides are dressed like their signature Don from the advertisements.  The tour winds through their barrels like all the other port wine caves , except in this cave you can see the bottles that have been aging since the early 1900’s.  Another addition to this tour is that it finishes up with a 10 minute movie showing where the grapes grow and the actual fermenting process in the area of Portugal that’s about an hour away from Porto.  If you want, Sandeman also offers more expensive, individualized tours with more tastings.

– If you’re looking for a nice afternoon tea, take a stop by Cafe Majestic (which was right down the street from our hotel).  It can get pretty crowded, but the the service is fast and efficient.  The food is so-so, but they offer all that you could want from a cafe including sandwiches, milkshakes, pastries, and all kinds of teas, coffees, and libations.  But most don’t go just for the food; the atmosphere and architecture has an old-school, late 19th/early 20th century feel that makes it worth a visit. Grade: B

Real Indiana.  We had a craving for Indian food and Lonely Planet suggested this place, but it really wasn’t that good.  It was a little overpriced, and we were all pretty sure that what we were eating probably couldn’t even be considered Indian food in the U.S. or India.   The one thing they did get right was the naan, which was actually pretty good.  If we had known that though, that’s all we would have ordered.  Unless you have a HUGE craving for Indian, give one of the other restaurants in the city a try.  Grade: C

La Ricotta Ristorante.  Like the Indian craving, this place you should probably only go to if you’re really, really in the mood for Italian food.  While the food here was better than at Real Indiana, it wasn’t really anything special either.  The menu consisted of the typical pizzas and pastas and they were well prepared and tasty.  But certainly nothing special to write about.  Grade: B-


What I saw:

Torre Dos Clerigos
Rua dos Clerigos

Igreja de Sao Francisco
Praca Infante Dom Henrique
Rua de Ferreira Borges, 4050 Porto

Ramos Pinto Port Wine
Avenida Ramos Pinto 400
4400 Vila Nova de Gaia

Taylor’s Port Wine
Rua do Choupelo 250
4400 Vila Nova de Gaia

Offley Port Wine
Rua do Choupelo, 54
4400 Vila Nova de Gaia

Sandeman Port Wine
Largo Miguel Bombarda 3
4400 Vila Nova de Gaia

Where I ate:

Cafe Majestic
Rua Santa Catarina 112
4000-442 Porto

Real Indiana
R. Particular do Castelo do Queijo, 395 – Lj. 23
4100-429 Porto

La Ricotta
Rua Passos Manuel 18
4000-381 Porto

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Porto, Portugal

After Lisbon, we took the CP train up to Porto, in the northwest section of the country.  The train ride took about 3 hours and was around 30 Euros (Note: Getting your train tickets online in advance is recommended.  You can print out your tickets in advance and you won’t have to be concerned about not having a train ride.  Be sure to sit in your assigned seat though – the conductors do come around to check and will make you move if you’re in the wrong place).  The ride up was comfortable and fast, like most European train services.

When we first arrived in Porto, it was like landing in a fairytale.  Porto is much quieter than Lisbon and has a more romantic feel to it. The city is on the side of a valley going down towards the Rio Douro below.  Porto is definitely the home of port wine, as evidenced by what we could see; on the other bank of the river – the port companies line up like sentries and you can watch the heavy river traffic going back and forth between the banks.

Here are the highlights from the first afternoon:

The Grande Hotel do Porto was the hotel we stayed at during our time in Porto.  After staying in a bare-bones apartment, it was certainly a flip of the switch to this classy, Victorian style hotel.  With a tea parlor, library, and study on the ground floor, each with old-school furniture, artwork and books, it makes one feel like they just warped back to the mid-1800’s.  Reasonably priced at around 103 Euros ($150) a night for a very solid, clean three bed room, it’s actually a pretty cool place to stay win a good location without burning a hole in your wallet.  The complimentary breakfast in the morning is served in a highly ornamented dining/ballroom and was one of the more extensive free breakfast buffets offerings that I’ve seen.  (Note: This hotel is at the top of the hill and while it’s a very easy 15 minute walk to get down to the main sights, the walk back up the hill to get back to the hotel can be a bit of a challenge after a long day.)

-We grabbed lunch at O Escondidinho Restaurante which was a short walk from our hotel.  The walls of this relatively homey feeling restaurant are covered with the famous azulejos and each table is almost regal in manner with each chair feeling more like a throne than a seat.  The menu offers an extensive menu and I had probably one of the best fish dishes of the trip here (Grilled sea bass).  The apple pie/strudel that I had for desert looked better than it tasted however, having the right flaky crust, but not nearly enough apple filling.  The service was solid, but there was no A/C so it got a little warm in there.  Regardless, all in all it’s a good, solid place to grab a meal.  Grade: B+

-If you are like us, you probably don’t know that much about port wine, which makes going to Vinologia as one of your first stops a must-do.  Located near the river, this rustic, oak barrel looking venue provided us with a great crash course on port wine because the menu offers several different tasting samplers at different prices along with a lesson from the waitress.  With hundreds of different types of port wine to choose from, the lesson helped us understand the differences between each type of port and what to pair it with (the tastings include different types of fruits, nuts, and chocolates that match best with the different types of port we tried).   Collectively, our favorite combo was the white tawny port with apricots.  Aside from the tastings, we ended up being there for a few hours just because we enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere (and admittedly, we all were sort of in love with our waitress).


Where I stayed:

Grande Hotel do Porto
Rua de Santa Catarina 197
4000-450 Porto

Where I ate:

O Escondidinho Restaurante
Rua Passos Manuel 144
4000-382 Porto

What I saw:

Rua de Sao Joao 46
4050 Porto

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Lisbon, Portugal Part III

We slated three days to explore Lisbon, and while that was certainly enough time to see a lot of the city, four days probably would have been the perfect amount.  On our final day we took a short bus ride over to the area of Lisbon called Belem.   To get there, all you need to do is walk down to that main road by the river (see the entry in the last post about the road to find if you get lost), and hop onto the Number 28 Bus going west.  (Note: Don’t confuse this with getting onto the streetcar Tram 28.  The Tram is a popular attraction for tourists – one that we unfortunately didn’t get a chance to ride on, but if you get that 4th day in, it sounds fun.  It looks kinda like riding the San Francisco streetcar).

The bus fare to Belem is only about 1.50 euro (which you can pay on the bus) and the ride takes about 15 minutes depending on traffic.  The buses are also really comfortable. Once you get to Belem the first thing you’ll notice is the serenity.  Coming from the hustle and bustle of downtown Lisbon, the peacefulness was a welcome break for us.   Here are the three stops we made while we were in Belem:

-Portugal is famous for its pastries.  In particular, the Pasteis de Nata is world famous and originates from Lisbon (there are variations of this desert in Chinese and Southeast Asian restaurants).  This egg custard pastry is pretty much one of the main reasons people come to Belem.  You can get them from any pasteleria in Lisbon, but if you want them fresh from the oven you’ll head straight to Antiga Confeitaria de Belem – which is exactly what we did once we got off the bus.  Located just down the street from Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, you’ll see it right away because of the crowd congregated outside of the cafe.  You have the option of waiting in line and getting it to go, but my suggestion is take the time, get table service, and have a seat inside (Note: There’s WAY more seating than it looks when you first walk in – just keep going back and back and you’ll find a huge room full of tables).  While their menu is pretty extensive, the must-do is you have to order some fresh pasteis de belem (same thing as the pasteis de nata).  They come out warm, golden brown, with a flaky crust, and a smooth, eggy, sweet custard inside.  Covered with a little cinnamon, they are quite heavenly.  Ignore the fact that eating them packs on the calories and justify crushing a few by telling yourself you’re getting a workout walking around Lisbon.

-The don’t miss landmark of Belem is the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos which is where we headed after stuffing our faces with pastries.  The Jeronimos Monastery costs 6 euros to enter, but is free on Sundays.  When you walk in, the first thing you’ll see are the coffins of Vasco de Gama, the man who navigated the route from Portugal to India, and Luis Vaz de Camoes, the great Portuguese poet.  While the main nave of the church is quite amazing – the highlight of the monastery is the cloisters.  As you walk around the cloisters, the plaza like area has highly decorated columns and an elaborate fountain in the middle.  Within the cloisters are several exhibits including a room with a great timeline of the history of the monastery superimposed over the history of Portugal and the history of world events.

-After the Monastery, we decided to go down the street to the Museu Coleccao Berardo.  Now this museum is free to all and houses an extensive collection of modern art.  There’s not really a whole lot I can tell you about it (because I’d be describing a bunch of lines across a piece of paper), but it’s worth checking out if you have a couple of hours.  However, if you’re pressed for time don’t bother. Modern art is modern art, and the exhibits there are things you could see easily in any U.S. modern art museum, and you won’t miss any “masterpieces”.

After spending our day in Belem we took the 28 Bus back downtown to grab dinner and head out for a fun filled evening.  For dinner we grabbed a bite to eat at Solar dos Presuntos.  Located north of the Rossio, to get there you have to walk by several tourist traps. Once you get clear of those, you’ll see the place.  The restaurant has a vibrant feel to it, with photos of celebrities (mainly Portuguese ones we think, but Ted Kennedy was definitely up there) on the all the walls (for you D.C. people – think Mei Wah.  For everyone else, just click on the link) and the hustle and bustle of the coming and going of waiters carrying whole fishes to tables left and right for customers to inspect.  Once we were seated, they immediately placed on the table a delicious array of chorizos, cheeses, olives, and breads (which they refilled consistently).  The wine list was handed to us – on an IPAD (yeah, that was pretty cool) and we each ordered a dish that was very good (grilled squid, goat, and shellfish bean stew to be exact).  Be warned: the menu may not reflect what they have on that day.  My buddy wasn’t able to get either the scallops or the pork on the menu because they were out of it for that day.  It’s also not the cheapest place in the world, you’ll pay a pretty penny for a good meal, but you’ll leave more than satisfied.  Grade B+

To top off the night we headed to the Bairro Alto.  This area is hopping with clubs, bars and restaurants.  On Friday and Saturday nights, people spill out into the pedestrian only streets and mingle with their libations.  There’s a bar scene for each kind of crowd, but it all becomes loud and jovial as the drinks get consumed.  It’s not as crazy as Bourbon Street in New Orleans, but there’s plenty of ridiculous drunkenness to be seen as the clock hits the early morning hours.  We had a great time and went to far too many bars for me to remember specific ones (that and the several Super Bocks, Sagres, and Caipirnhas lead to that memory loss).


What I saw:

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos
Belem, Portugal

Museu Coleccao Berardo
Praça do Império
1449-003 Lisboa

Bairro Alto

Where I ate:

Antiga Confeitaria de Belem
Rua de Belem, 84 84
1300-085 Lisboa, Portugal

Solar dos Presuntos
R. das Portas de Santo Antão 150
1150 Lisboa, Portugal

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Lisbon, Portugal Part II

On our second day in Lisbon we got another day of beautiful weather (actually we pretty much had mid to high 80s and sunny the entire trip) and our day consisted of even more walking around and sightseeing.   Here are a few of the highlights:

A good starting off point for a day in Lisbon should probably begin at the central area of Praca Dom Pedro IV or better known as the Rossio which is what we did.  Located in the heart of the city, in between the historical Alfama region and the restaurant/bar scene called Bairro Alto (I’ll talk more about this area next blog post), the main square is loaded with shops and cafes.  Walk down the pedestrian street Rua Da Augusta towards the water and you’ll find even more outdoor restaurants and pastry shops.  Most are touristy and you’ll be hounded by restaurant workers left and right trying to convince you to stop and eat, but it’s a pleasant walk nonetheless.  Note: Although safe, keep an eye out for the numerous shady characters trying to sell you weed and cocaine on the street.  Once you get near the water, you’ll end up at Praca do Comercio where we just happen to luckily come upon a free Joss Stone concert.

Note: The best way to get your bearings back if you get lost in Lisbon is to just head towards the water.  With all the unmarked crisscross streets, and maps that aren’t able to label every little alley, it can be easy to lose your way.  But if you head down towards the river, you’ll eventually end up on the main road along the water and that can guide you to where you need to go.

You’ll notice very quickly that the city has an admiration for blue tiles or Azulejos, as you’ll see them on several of the churches and government buildings throughout Lisbon.  One place to see one of the more impressive arrays of Azulejos is at the Monastery of Sao Vincente de Fora (Monastery of St. Vincent Outside the Walls) in the Alfama (It’s a bit of a hike uphill to get there FYI).  The entrance fee is  4 Euros (Note: Cheaper if you’re a student, but you have be under 25 years old) and once you get inside you’ll be struck by the mass array of blue tiled artwork.  In particular, check out the exhibit upstairs displaying the azulejos of La Fontaine’s fables.  There you’ll see depictions of 38 of the fables, along with the actual fable written next to it in English and Portuguese, including: The Donkey and Dog, Hawk and Cockerel, Upbringing, and Bear and Man Who Loved Gardens.  Make sure also to see the remains of the 7 Portuguese and Spanish missionaries that were martyred in Morocco and the crazy, freaky mausoleum with a marble cloaked woman weeping over a coffin in the center.  It’s really, really creepy – like hairs will stand up on the back of your neck creepy.

Here are a few more places to check out:

-If you’re looking to get a peek inside what life was like in the Middle Ages you should definitely check out the Castelo de Sao Jorge.   Located at the top of the hill in the heart of the Alfama and overlooking Lisbon, this medieval fortress costs 7 Euros to enter.  On a good day like we had, the castle provided some fun, childlike behavior as we bounced from tower to tower and the views from the top were more than camera worthy.   If you’re lucky enough you’ll also notice the several peacocks that have taken residence in the courtyard and roam around with their baby birds.

-Although Lisbon is known more for its seafood and desert pastries, if you can find it there’s a great steak house to try.  Located near the Parliament building, this local place is so hidden it blends right in with the residential apartments – you have to know the exact address.  The place is called Cafe de Sao Bento and it’s on Rua de São Bento 212, north of the Bairro Alto.  Now this place is old school – you actually have to ring the doorbell to get in.  We actually rang the bell on accident not knowing for sure if someone would answer.  We were more than a little stunned when we were greeted by a man in a tuxedo who led us into the small restaurant.  The place has a weird mafia hideaway feel to it and we definitely felt awkward the first few minutes we were there.  That feeling quickly subsided however when we saw several other “normal” looking groups of tourists, families, and local businessmen.  The wait staff was very kind and hospitable and the seats were plush and comfy.  The steak was phenomenal as well, plated in a no nonsense way – just the meat and sauce with a bowl of either fries or homemade chips.  The steak melted in our mouths and was reasonably priced at around 14-20 Euros.  For vegetarians, the only other thing on the menu besides steaks were small sides of creamed spinach and salad.   One mark against the place however was their ant problem – we had a few of the critters crawling around our table.  For that, it gets bumped down from an A- to a Grade: B+


What I saw:

Praca Dom Pedro IV aka Rossio

Monastery of Sao Vincente de Fora
Largo de Sao Vincente

Castelo de Sao Jorge

Where I ate:

Cafe de San Bento
Rua de São Bento 212

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Lisbon, Portugal Part I

Before I got on the plane with my two friends to Portugal a few weeks ago, I had really no real idea what to expect; because of work I didn’t really get to do much research beforehand.  I guess my impression of Portugal was that it was like the forgotten middle child of the European countries, with no defining landmark like the Colosseum, Eiffel Tower or Buckingham Palace, or signature food such as Pizza or Paella, or even a reputation for vices like what you would find in Amsterdam.  But even so, I jumped at the opportunity to visit the country that I knew probably had a lot more to offer than what I imagined.

Our trip took us to three parts of Portugal – Lisbon, the capital of the country on the southwestern coast, Porto, up in the northwest, and Lagos in the beach area of Algarve along the southern coast.  We flew a red-eye flight on TAP, the Portuguese national airline, which was to be honest not the most comfortable ride in the world.  Expecting the plane to have the amenities of most European airlines (with cushioned seats, and video on demand screens on the seats in front of you), instead we had an older airbus with extremely worn seats and no movie/music options.  Needless to say, I was underwhelmed and feared at the end of the trip having to fly home on the same old creaky plane (Luckily for us, we had a much more normal/modern plane on the way back with all the comfortable amenities).  So just be warned if you fly TAP, you might land on an older plane.

Once we landed in Lisbon, we headed to the apartment we booked through Airbnb.  (Watch out for the cabs from the airport – they will cheat you.  The cab from the airport to our apartment cost us 28 Euros.  The cab back going the same distance at the end of the trip – 7 Euros)  The apartment we got was fantastic.  It was clean, in a great area right in the historical region of Alfama, and our host Ema was super helpful in getting us settled with tips about taxis, telling us where the closest supermarket was, and giving us advice on good places to visit.  If you’re planning on visiting, please get in touch with me and I’d be happy to give you her info.  The rate for her two bedroom apartment, one bathroom, living room with kitchen/laundry was 60 Euros a night ($85 a night).

Here’s an outline of some of the things we did the first day:

-After walking around the city we quickly figured this out so be warned – the city is extremely hilly.  Make sure you know that before you come to visit if you’re with the elderly or injured.

-Several of the sights in Lisbon are free to all and/or free on some days (usually Sundays) making the trip very affordable if you plan ahead accordingly.

Igreja de Santa Maria Maior Se or Se de Lisboa (Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Mary Major): One of the first of many churches we visited on the trip, the fortress looking building was free to enter.  Several of the parts of the church you should check out are the room with the high adorned papal robes and hats and the gargoyles patrolling the church.  Other parts of the church such as the cloister and treasury cost a few Euros to enter and I hear are worth seeing if you’re a history buff (we unfortunately didn’t make it in, opting to save the Euros for other parts of the trip).

Fado – One of the quintessential Portuguese arts is Fado, a traditional singing performance consisting of a singer and a guitarist or two.  You can’t visit Lisbon without going to a restaurant at least once with a Fado performance.  Although you probably won’t understand a word their saying – much like opera – the delivery of the singing is what makes the music so moving.  Times vary and there are definitely tourist traps that lure visitors in with their Fado.  But we did find one small place with several locals called A Tasca do Chico in the Alfama.  The food wasn’t great to be honest, but the atmosphere more than made up for it.  There were rotating male singers (all of whom looked like regular schmoes off the street) along with two very talented guitarists.  They sang three songs each with a half hour break in between, the time we spent talking to the others we shared a table with.  It’s definitely a relaxing time and a good way to unwind after a long day of sightseeing and meet some locals.  Grade: B-

Pois Cafe: For a laid back, coffee house experience with a staff all fluent in English check out Pois Cafe.  Just down the street from Se de Lisboa (see above), this bohemian style coffee shop offers a venue where one can lounge around in their cushy sofas and grab any of the books or periodicals along the walls – think of it like an Urban Outfitters with food.   With a menu of sandwiches and salads, the place hits the spot if you’re looking for a quick respite.  Try the Mozart Sandwich (Cheese, Prosciutto, Salad, and Balsamic Vinegar) and their flaky apple strudel.  Grade: B


Where I stayed:

Emanuela Pendjer Mendes’s apartment through
Beco da Lapa
Lisbon, Lisbon 1100

What I saw:

Igreja de Santa Maria Maior Se or Se de Lisboa (Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Mary Major)
Largo da Sé
1100 Lisboa, Portugal

Where I ate:

Pois Cafe
R. de São João da Praça 93
1100 Lisboa, Portugal

A Tasca Do Chico
Rua do Diário de Notícias, 39

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Avalon, NJ

Ah, summer time has arrived.  As we head into the Memorial Day week, left and right BBQ grills are getting fired up, pools are opening, and as my one (female) friend mentioned, “Time to break out the white pants”.  The summer season also obviously marks the beginning of the beach season as well.  Luckily for me, a buddy of mine has a family home about 400 meters from the beach in beautiful Avalon, New Jersey.

Now let me say off the bat – this is not your MTV Jersey Shore type location.  If you want to see Ed Hardy shirts and trashy college students, head 20 minutes up the road to Wildwood, NJ or go to Dewey Beach in Delaware and you can see that sort of foolishness there.  Avalon is much more family friendly, with several locally owned restaurants and shops, mini-golf, and bike rental places.  There are people of all ages, but can’t say of all races (I have to report that in the weekend I was there, including myself, I counted a grand total of 9 minorities). I also don’t think the LGBT crowd would have any problems on Avalon beach, but I’m pretty sure when we went on our day trip to Rehoboth beach in Delaware, they were all there.

Getting to Avalon is easy, but getting in isn’t.  If you try and go on Friday night, you’ll hit a one lane traffic jam getting in that can last miles and take up to a couple of hours.  Same goes for getting out of the town on Sunday night.  But once you get over the bridge into Avalon, the town is a welcome sight and is such a great place to relax.  You’ll quickly forget your stress from the traffic.  I’ll go down the list of the things to see and do.

The beach is easily the highlight of the town.  It’s not usually too crowded, and is clean and family friendly.  Make sure when you head to the beach, you go there with cash because unless you have a pass that residents pay for, it’s $6 a day, $12 for the week, and $26 for the season.  They don’t want you bringing booze on the beach, but you can get away with it if you’re not being too rowdy.  Watch out for the seagulls dive bombing down to get the food though; they’re aggressive and relentless.  And finally, the lifeguards are pretty strict about staying near the lifeguard seats and not swimming out too far.  You’ll hear a whistle on average every 10-15 minutes.  The pictures below were taken at around 11 in the morning; the crowds really rolled in about an hour after that.

If you’re looking for a quick bite to eat head to Nemo’s Pizza.  It’s a local family restaurant only open during the summer season.  There you can get your pizza, pasta, or Italian sub fix for a decent price.  I’d say the pizza is pretty close to the kinda you can get a Papa Gino’s for you New Englanders reading this.

If the fun and sun on the beach gets a little boring, there’s a fun local mini-golf (or Putt Putt if you prefer) place called Pirate Island Golf.  Get the last shot in at Pirate Island and you win a free game.  And next to Pirate Island is the Avalon Freeze, a small, local ice cream shop with the usual soft serve offerings and their version of the Dairy Queen Blizzard called the Avalon Freezer.   Watch out – the Avalon Freezer is as filling as a meal.

For breakfast food, Avalon offers two family breakfast joints.  The first is Uncle Bill’s Pancake House.   Open from 7 AM- 1 PM, this place will always hit the spot, with every type of pancake, waffle, egg, breakfast meat combo you can think of.  I personally love the Special Combo that is 1 egg, 3 butter pancakes, bacon, and toast.  I usually also get a side of home-fries because I think they’re some of the best.  If you get a fruit pancake (bananas, blueberries, whatever) keep in mind they don’t make the pancake with the fruit in it, they put it on top.  Now the place is probably a little overpriced, you’ll end up spending at least $10, and it’s cash only.  And don’t be surprised if you have to wait for a table – the place is big, but everyone in Avalon ends up there around brunch time.  One final thing that you’ll also probably notice is that the dozens of waitresses running around are all high school girls.  Just saying, it’s kinda weird.  Here’s some pics of the food there:

The second place is the Pudgy Pelican.   Much smaller, and a little less high school cheerleader with their employees, the Pudgy Pelican is a solid diner style back up for breakfast with pretty much the same breakfast offerings as Uncle Bill’s, except that it’s open longer for the lunch crowd with more sandwich offerings.  I also personally think their omelette is far superior than the one you can get at Uncle Bill’s as well.

The one exception to the quaint family feel is the one bar in Avalon called “The Princeton“.  Located at the end of the main drag in the center of town, the Princeton is one of the few, if not the only, bar in town that’s big enough and loud enough to draw a crowd that includes undoubtedly the college, underage drinking posse.   Since it is the place to be, and pretty much the only one in town, you’ll pay a pretty penny to get in on a weekend night, and you probably won’t find that many great drink specials once inside.  That being said, if you are looking for a place to drink, dance, have a good time with a group of friends and want to find someone to hook up with – The Princeton is probably your best bet.

Avalon, NJ is a great place to go for a long weekend beach outing.  It’s clean, safe (no joke, you can literally leave all your stuff on the beach for hours and nothing will happen to it) and you’ll no doubt get your relaxation in.