To Be a Tree

Balboa Park tree in San Diego, California.

Photo by SR Dryja at Balboa Park, San Diego.

By Sherry Dryja

I want to be a tree,
rooted and sure in my earthy ground,
reaching out to the sun with my branches,
tantalizing the world with my blossoms,
winking at the birds with my fluttering leaves,
providing homes to birds and squirrels and possums.

I want to be a tree that is,
that just is,
exactly a tree
and only that
perfection of trunk
and bark
and branches
and long roots
and gnarls
and twigs
and leaves–
glorious leaves which almost sing when the wind blows through them.

And when I die,
when my roots grow weak
and they loosen from the ground,
when the day comes that I can no longer stand straight and tall,
I want to be blown over by the wind
and land hard and fast on the ground
to become regal but hollowed-out homes for other creatures,
feeding the earth with my remains,
and know that my life mattered because I lived.

Tree roots, Balboa Park, San Diego

Roots of a tree in Balboa Park in San Diego. Photo by SR Dryja.

Lake Havasu City converts desert dust to tourist gold

Upon first arriving in Lake Havasu City, it seemed like any other dusty desert town in Arizona, in need of a good hose-down and a fresh coat of paint. The town was incorporated in the early 70s and it looked like it hadn’t been touched since.

But first impressions are often wrong and this one definitely was. Just below that dusty surface is a whole treasure of experiences to be had.

For starters, there’s the London Bridge. You read that correctly. Lake Havasu City is the proud owner of the original London Bridge. It was brought brick by brick from London to Lake Havasu by Robert P. McCulloch, a chainsaw magnate and the town’s founder, to act as a draw for tourism–and it worked! There are boat tours, walking tours, and Segway tours, all based around the bridge as a focal point.

London Bridge in Lake Havasu Arizona

The London Bridge in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

We were there to walk the 5K in the annual London Bridge Half-Marathon and 5K. The race trail took us over the bridge twice and we got to see other parts of town as well.

London Bridge Half Marathon and 5K

Team Dryja ready to walk the London Bridge 5K!

The lake is what really brings people to the area, though. It is a big boating community, so you can bring your own, rent one, or take a tour on one. We were told by several locals that Lake Havasu is the second-most visited place in Arizona, thanks to the lake. The Grand Canyon is the first, of course. But for the lake, the bridge probably wouldn’t be there either. It is a reservoir lake, made up of water from the Colorado River which is contained by the Parker Dam.

Since the water is why people visit the area, most of the activities revolve around it, but boating isn’t the only way to experience it. There are hot air balloon rides, helicopter rides, and ultralight aircraft tours. Hikers can explore the surrounding hills. Gamblers can check out the casinos. Campers can roll out their tents and sleeping bags in one of the campsites dotting the lake. If you like lighthouses, take a tour that points out the many replicas of North American lighthouses around the lake. There’s lots to do.

Lake Havasu lighthouses

Lake Havasu is dotted by replicas of lighthouses that can be found in their original forms in other parts of the world.

Did you know that this town of just over 50,000 people is also home to three pretty spectacular breweries? One of our favorite things to do while in Lake Havasu City was the brewery tour we took through Arizona Brewery Tours. Mike Moreno, Regional Salesman for Northern Arizona at College Street Brewerhouse and Pub was our tour guide. He made us feel like VIPs as we rolled from brewery to brewery in our private SUV. Mudshark, Barley Brothers, and College Street all made us feel like honored guests as the owners and brewmasters shared their stories, served tastings of their current offerings, and showed us where the magic happens.

Beer tastings at Mudshark Brewery

Just six of the 14 tastings Scott Stocking at Mudshark served.

Scott Stocking with tour group at Mudshark Brewery

Scott Stocking with our little tour group at Mudshark Brewery.

Tour group with brewmaster of Barley Brothers.

The tour group with Keith, Barley Brother’s brewmaster. We think he looked like George Carlin.

Colby Hansen, head brewer at College Street Brewery with tour group

The tour would be incomplete without a bearded brewmaster and Colby Hansen at College Street Brewery fit the bill to a tee!

Table of beer tastings at College Street Brewery.

Our table of tastings at College Street! We were the talk of the restaurant.

Mike Moreno gave a tour of Lake Havasu City breweries.

The tour would not have been as enjoyable if our guide had been anyone other than Mike Moreno. Thanks, Mike!

Let this be a lesson. Don’t let the “vintage” look of a place fool you, especially this place. Lake Havasu City is a first-class charmer. Whether you’re there for the gorgeous lake, the London Bridge Half Marathon and 5K, the busy brewery scene, or any of the other activities around town, this is a place worth visiting more than once.

Lake Havasu sunset surprise

Lake Havasu is known for its lake–a reservoir of the Colorado River. It is also known as a Spring break party town with boats so jammed into the lake that you can walk from one to the other without a life jacket. Who knew, though, that it could boast a peaceful and enchanting sunset cruise as well?

Last weekend, my husband, parents, and mother-in-law took one of the most memorable cruises any of us have been on, thanks to Captain Kenny Samp at the Sunset Charter & Tour Company.

sunset cruisers on a boat

We arrived for our three-hour cruise and Captain Kenny immediately made us feel welcome with comfy chairs and bottled water.

Sunset cruise wildlife

On the cruise, we saw rams, owls, herons, and lots of other wildlife.

Rock formations at Lake Havasu.

We also saw interesting rock formations and learned about what made them so unique.

Lake Havasu lighthouses

Lake Havasu is dotted by replicas of lighthouses that can be found in their original forms in other parts of the world.

London Bridge in Lake Havasu Arizona

Of course, a lake adventure in Lake Havasu is incomplete without the London Bridge.

Sunset on Lake Havasu

But the reason we were on the lake to begin with was to experience the sunset. Weren’t we in for a treat!

Every person on the boat agreed–our three hour cruise melted into one of the most peaceful, satisfying experiences we could remember. Captain Kenny’s sunset tour left us feeling like we had been in a sweet dream filled with rippling water, beautiful vistas, and enchanting stars.

To see more photos of our sunset cruise, watch the slideshow below.

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Worldwide Recess Day is here!

Today is the big day: Worldwide Recess Day! What are you doing to get your 10-minutes of recess?

KEEN footwear is encouraging everyone to get out and play for at least 10 minutes today. Take a picture of your fun, upload it to Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #TAKE10, and you could win a pair of KEEN shoes!

Here are five ideas for a fun day of recess.

1. Walk the dog!

If you don’t have a dog, volunteer at a rescue organization and walk some dogs who need it most. Better yet, adopt one of those dogs if you have the love and time to give a sweet pooch. You’ll receive far more from a rescued dog than you can ever give.

Don’t forget water and poopy bags to make sure your friend is well-hydrated and a good doggie citizen.

2. Invite a friend to coffee, and then walk there together.

Or, if you’re in Austin, Texas, walk to Gordough’s for a giant, made-to-order donut, then see if either you or your friend can finish one together.

You don’t feel so guilty about eating at Gordough’s if you walk there.

3. Play tourist for a day in your own town.

Put on some shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and sandals with black socks, and go check out the sights! Don’t forget your camera!

If you’re in San Diego, Washington, DC or Stratford, Ontario, take a walking tour. You can also Segway around the hot spots of San Diego if you opt to go with Another Side of San Diego Tours.

One of the many memorable moments we had during a walking tour of La Jolla, California with Bridgette of Another Side of San Diego tours.

4. Do a photo scavenger hunt with friends.

See who can find all the public art in your town first. If you’re in Chicago, you may need a whole weekend for this!

Agora in Chicago.

5, Make today a day of courage by doing something you’ve never done before.

Bonus points if it’s something you’ve always wanted to do, such as riding in a hot air balloon or learning what it takes to be a dolphin trainer.

One of the most memorable days of my life was spent in a wet suit–and I’m afraid of the ocean!

Those are some of my ideas. Now, how are you going to play?

For more inspiration, check out KEEN’s Postano page.

5 ways to play in San Diego

A path along the beach on Coronado Island is one of the many places to play in San Diego.

For those who live in San Diego, there is always a reason to get out and play, but for those who are only allowed short visits, how do you pack all of paradise into a single weekend? Below are five ideas on how to get the most out of a weekend of play in San Diego.

1. Take a tour with Another Side of San Diego

If Another Side of San Diego doesn’t have a tour to fit your interest, time frame, and preferred mode of transportation, it doesn’t exist! Whether you’re in the mood for history, art, nature, food, or even beer, they’ve got a tour for it. Not only that, but you can pursue your interests by Segway, on foot, in a hot air balloon, on horseback, on a bike, or even in a boat! As long-time resident of La Jolla, Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) said, “Oh, the places you’ll go!”

To explore their tour options, visit their website. To book a tour, you can use their website or call them at 1-619-239-2111.

Another Side of San Diego tours has tours by land or sea. In La Jolla you can walk, Segway, or kayak to learn about this jewel of a town where seals and sea lions call home.

A tour of Balboa Park will introduce you to the natural wonders of Southern California, but you may also catch a concert at one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs!

2. San Diego Botanic Gardens

To get outside and get away from it all, head up to Encinitas and visit the peaceful San Diego Botanic Gardens. There you can walk to the music of nature: birds chirping, lizards rustling in the brush, lacy bamboo swooshing in the breeze. Find a bench alongside the waterfall in the Tropical Rainforest, close your eyes, and listen to the sound of water carry all your troubles away.

San Diego Botanic Gardens brim with life in all shapes and forms. Some shapes have more form than others, like this incredible statue made up of succulents.

On Saturdays at 10:30am, the gardens provide docent-led tours of the splendid variety of plants living in each section. Also, check their calendar for classes and other events, such as making your own succulent art work or cooking with an opera singing chef.

3. Take in a play at the La Jolla Playhouse

If you’re in San Diego to explore the beauty of their outdoor paradise, but you wouldn’t mind taking in a play while you’re there, you can combine the two by attending a Without Walls play through the award-winning La Jolla Playhouse. Over the last year, their Without Walls program has literally led audiences out of the theater and through garden paths or into the intimate surroundings of cars and martini bars.

“The Car Plays: San Diego” was a part of the Without Walls program and one of many brilliant plays hosted by the La Jolla Playhouse.

If there isn’t a Without Walls program running when you visit, it is still worthwhile to see one of their plays with traditional-style seating. It should be stated, however, that none of their plays can be considered “traditional”. Better words might be provocative, cutting-edge, soulful, and unforgettable.

4. Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

With two locations to choose from and plenty of docent-led tours available, at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego you can discover just how much you have in common with contemporary art. Take, for example, the current exhibit downtown by local artist Margaret Noble entitled “44th and Landis”. If you’re used to art being oil paintings hung on walls, you may wonder what you can get out of her paper dolls hanging from the ceiling and the wild noises crashing from her handmade speakers. But stop and look at the paper dolls. Listen to the sounds. Suddenly, you see familiar things, like the logo of a Peeps Marshmallow box or the chase of Ms. Pacman through a maze. You hear familiar sounds that take you back to 1982, when you lived for Space Invaders and chased the ice cream truck on your bike until it stopped.

If you didn’t grow up in the 80s, you may still connect with the artists that use light and space to evoke a feeling. Whole rooms are devoted to the sensations and emotions light can have on us. And, if that doesn’t do it for you, then perhaps you will marvel at the wall that breathes or connect with the massive iron heart that looks like a prison.

This Light and Space piece by Doug Wheeler is one you participate in simply by showing up and experiencing what shifts within you as a result of this space and its lighting.

5. FOOD!

San Diego is not only charmed with sunny weather and stunning ocean views, it is home to more than its share of talented chefs, fresh produce, and inspired craft beer brewmasters.

If you only have time and budget for one special restaurant, go without delay to Georges at the Cove in La Jolla. Chef Trey Foshee has won tons of awards for his California Modern cuisine, including the San Diego Chefs Hall of Fame and the Food Network’s “Best Thing I Ever Ate”. There’s a reason for all these accolades. His food is consistently knock-your-flip-flops-off delicious; the kind of delicious that you remember and dream about weeks and months later. Even vegetarians can get in on the making of great food memories because they offer an entirely vegetarian menu and many of the dishes can be made vegan.

Reservations are recommended and can be made online or by calling 858-454-4244.

Georges on the Cove is definitely high-end food, but you gotta love a place that rolls up its sleeves with The People by serving donuts and coffee for desert.

If you go to Encinitas to visit the San Diego Botanic Gardens for an afternoon of peaceful retreat, spend your evening having dinner at Union Kitchen and Tap just down the road. They offer a variety of high-end tavern food (including vegetarian and vegan options) and they offer about 20 craft beers on tap, many of which are locally crafted.

Depending on what time you go, reservations may not be necessary, but if time is of the essence, it may be worthwhile to secure a table by giving them a call at 760.230.2337(BEER).

Where to stay

Hotel Parisi in La Jolla offers elegant and convenient accommodations for almost any sized group and any length of stay. The main sights, restaurants, and shopping opportunities are located just beyond the doorstep of this hotel.

Hotel Parisi also offers Parisi Apart, corporate apartments decked out with full-sized refrigerators, microwaves, silverware and dishes for travelers needing extended stays or those wishing to eat meals in the comfort of their own apartment.

The convenience of this hotel does come at a price, however. Prices start around $300 a night for a basic room and go up to over $400 a night for the extended stay apartments. Parking is an additional $15 per night and other fees may apply.

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These are just a few ideas. The possibilities are endless.

How do you like to spend time in San Diego? Comment below or email me at srdryja@jetplanesandcoffee.com with your ideas! With your help, we can put together a comprehensive list that will help others plan their weekend at play in San Diego!

Recess in La Jolla

KEEN’s Worldwide Recess Day isn’t for another week, but I thought I’d get a jumpstart by playing on the rocks in La Jolla, California.

One of the many stunning views in La Jolla. This one was had standing just beyond the wave’s reach atop the continental shelf at low tide.

Stay tuned for more photos from my weekend at play, along with tips and ideas for how you can enjoy “The Jewel” of California!

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Don’t forget to upload your photos to Twitter and Instagram on September 14th with the hashtag #TAKE10, for a chance to win a pair of shoes by KEEN footwear! And, although I can’t offer you a pair of shoes, I would still love to see what you’ve got planned for recess, so be sure to go to my Facebook page and post your photos there too!

Waiting for the recess bell

Worldwide Recess Day is just 10 days away!

Here are some inspiring ideas from readers on Twitter and Facebook:

Becky from Arizona will spend the whole day in recess that day. She’s taking the husband and kids to Disneyland!

What better place to spend a whole day of recess than Disneyland? (Photo by Wikipedia User: RAGB.)

Maryellen from New York plans to go old school playing hopscotch and jump rope.

Magpie hopscotch at Morecambe Pier, England. Taken by Wikipedia User:Lupin, 11/Apr/2004.

She also liked the idea of calling all the school chums together for a rousing game of kickball.

Girls playing kickball in Central Park in New York in 1973. (Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration.)

I like the idea of walking to Dairy Queen for an ice cream cone.

Vintage neon Dairy Queen sign, Ottawa, Canada. (Photo by Ian Muttoo.)

Or heading to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum to spy lizards and hummingbirds.

A trek through the Boyce Thompson Arboretum is my idea of recess!

Or how about a hot air balloon ride?

How about a hot air balloon ride?

How will you get out and enjoy being a kid again on September 14th? Send in your ideas and I’ll post them here!

For more excitement, upload a picture to Twitter or Instagram on the 14th with the hashtag #TAKE10. You may win a pair of shoes from KEEN footwear! KEEN will announce one winner every hour.

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Jet Planes and Coffee is not affiliated with KEEN footwear and will, therefore, not be giving away shoes. We do love a great opportunity to get outside and play, though, so get out there, have some fun, and share your experiences!

Walking Stratford

While at first glance Stratford, Ontario may seem like any small, historic town in North America, it has a lot to offer the traveling walker. For those used to city life, Stratford moves at a slower pace, but it won’t disappoint in the way of world-class entertainment and restaurants. For the tourist who likes to walk and see the places they visit, Stratford is perfect as well, offering many walking tours, excellent paths to stroll along the river, a long street for shopping, and several gardens to explore.

Stratford, Ontario is about a two-hour drive from Toronto or a three-hour drive from Detroit. Although Detroit is an hour longer, crossing the border by car seems to be quicker than going through customs at the airport in Toronto. From Phoenix, prices for flights are cheaper to Detroit than they are to Toronto as well. Still, Toronto is a fabulous city with all its own reasons for visiting, so make sure to choose to visit Toronto, either on its own, or as a path to Stratford sometime.

To enter Canada by flying into Toronto, US citizens need to have their passports. To drive up from Detroit, you must have either a passport or the US Passport Card.

The U.S. Passport Card can be used to enter the United States from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda at land border crossings or sea ports-of-entry and is more convenient and less expensive than a passport book. The passport card cannot be used for international travel by air.

~ From the US Bureau of Consular Affairs website

Where we stayed and why

If you read my previous article, you know we stayed at one of my favorite places in the world, The Verandah, a vacation rental owned by Debbie and Denis Harrison who rent out one side of their duplex home and live in the other side. The Verandah is perfectly situated for anyone wanting to visit Stratford mostly on foot. We were able to walk to all the theaters and restaurants from our home away from home. In fact, the only place we didn’t walk to was the grocery store, which was just a tad too far for carrying loads of groceries.

The Verandah has two bedrooms, both with queen-sized beds, and one-and-a-half baths. It has a full-size kitchen filled with glasses, dishes, pots, pans, and utensils–pretty much anything one might need to cook at home. There is an office with a large desk for those who must work while in Stratford, and they have high-speed wireless internet. For those times when you need to wash a load of clothes, there is a washer and dryer on site. For more images of The Verandah, go to my previous article.

All distances and step calculations mentioned below are measured from the front door of The Verandah, which is located at 29 Church Street.

The Verandah.

Groceries and other necessities

If you’re staying in Stratford for any length of time and you have a kitchen available, you may wish to visit one of the many farmers markets or local food marts to take advantage of the fresh produce available in the summertime in Ontario. Thanks to groups like Slow Food Perth County, and others equally interested in eating locally and seasonally, there are several options available.

Sunday Slow Food Farmers Market: This market is open on Sundays from 10am to 2pm during the summer months. Be sure to check with them online for their schedule, as they close when temperatures start to cool down. While they are in operation during the summer, they sponsor special events, including a Food Truck Event and a Pork Party, celebrating Stratford’s history with all things pork.

The Slow Food Farmers Market is in the Market Square, just behind City Hall, between Downie and Wellington Streets. It is just over a quarter of a mile from The Verandah, making it about 600 steps one way.

The Slow Food Farmers Market is located behind City Hall. (Look closely and you can see a food truck.) Take the road left, and you’ll come upon the Co-op. Take the road right and you’ll find the LCBO.

Your Local Market Cooperative: This little grocery shop is owned and operated by the employees. Almost everything they sell is produced and/or processed in Ontario, the only exception being that their soymilk is from Quebec because they haven’t yet found a local producer. Breads are made onsite daily.

Regular hours are Monday through Saturday from 8am to 8pm, Sunday 9am to 5pm.

Located at 129 Downie Street, this store is .3 miles, or 600 steps, from The Verandah.

The Gentle Rain Natural Health Food Store: This store has been serving Stratford for 30 years. They provide all manner of organic groceries, natural household products, supplements, and other items you may need to eat and live healthily. Their selection and variety is a little bigger than the co-op downtown, but both stores have the same desire of providing local, seasonal, healthy choices.

Their hours are Monday through Friday from 9am to 7pm, Saturday from 9am to 5:30pm, and Sunday from 11am to 5pm.

The Gentle Rain is located at 30 Rebecca Street, which is approximately .5 miles from The Verandah, or 1000 steps.

Zehr’s: If you can’t find what you need at the farmers market, the co-op, or The Gentle Rain, Zehr’s will have it. This is your typical grocery store with a produce department, a frozen foods section, and a meat department. They have a variety of fish available, much of it local to Ontario, and they have a lot of familiar brands, such as Pepsi, Kashi, and Kellogg’s.

They are open Sundays from 8am to 11pm, Mondays from 10am-4pm, and Tuesday through Saturday from 7am to 11pm.

Zehr’s is located at 865 Ontario Street, which is not quite 2 miles from The Verandah. We did not walk there, but if you did, it would give you not quite 4000 steps one way.

LCBO: Need a bottle of wine for a dinner party? How about some unique beer choices? The Liquor Control Board of Ontario, known as LCBO, is a store located just off of downtown Stratford. It has a very good selection of wines, beers, and other spirits. If you’re looking for something specific, go to their website before visiting the store. Select “Products” and do a search for the item, along with the store location, and they’ll provide an inventory of what is available.

LCBO is located at 91 Wellington Street and is closed on Mondays, but open Tuesday through Saturday from 10am to 9pm, and on Sundays from 12pm to 5pm.

To walk there from The Verandah will earn you about 400 steps one way. The store is .2 miles from your home away from home.

Shoppers Drug Mart: For all those odds and ends that come up in a trip, there’s Shoppers Drug Mart. Similar to a Walgreen’s or CVS in the States, this chain store carries headache medicine, a variety of snack foods (including some fresh fruit!), umbrellas, sunblock, and much more.

They are open from 8am to midnight everyday. The one in Stratford is located at 211 Ontario Street, which is about .4 miles from The Verandah, or 800 steps one way.

Coffee

It could be that Stratford is one of my favorite places in the world because it is host to some of the best coffee I have ever had. Starbucks does not exist in Stratford, at least not downtown or within walking distance. At first this may seem as a disappointment, but once you get a taste of Balzac’s or Revels, you’ll be glad you didn’t have access to Starbucks.

Balzac’s: This coffee house, which got its start in Stratford, has gone on to become a successful small chain throughout Ontario. Be sure and buy a pound or two of beans to stash in your suitcase so you can have a little taste of Stratford wherever you call home. I particularly enjoy the Atwood Blend.

“Alas, poor Yorick! We brew him well.”

Balzac’s is a place to go lounge with friends. There is plenty of seating indoors and a few tables outside as well. If you are walking with a puppy, there is often water available for them just outside the door and they are allowed to sit on the patio with you.

Sidle up to the counter for coffee drinks, beans, tea, and more.

Hours are not listed on their website, but you may call them at 519-273-7909 for more information. In Stratford, they are located at 149 Ontario Street, which is .3 miles from The Verandah, or approximately 600 steps one way.

Revel Caffe: Restaurants around Stratford agree, the coffee brewed at this coffee house devoted to fair trade is one worth experiencing. The rich roasts will make such an imprint in your culinary mind that, weeks later, you will think wistfully of the warm smell of the brew and the bold flavors.

The owner, Anne Campion, will surely be part of that memory as well because she is passionate about her coffee and will happily talk with you to answer any questions you may have. While in Stratford, do as Steve McElroy from the New York Times did, and visit Revel Caffe often. Then, if your love affair has not been satiated, buy some beans to take home. You’ll be glad you did.

Revel Caffe is open on Mondays from 8am to 5pm, Tuesday through Thursday from 8am to 6pm, Friday and Saturday from 8am to 7pm, and Sunday from 9:30am to 4pm.

You can start your love affair by going to 50 Wellington Street, which is a mere .3 miles from The Verandah, or about 600 steps.

Sputnik: This little coffee bar tucked inside the skinniest building in Stratford is also tucked beneath what is rumored to have been the apartment Thomas Edison lived in when he worked in Stratford for a short time. The coffee here is good, although Balzac’s and Revel are just a little bit better. Sputnik is just one of those places that immediately makes a person feel at home, like you’ve been going there for years, even if it’s your first time in. The baristas make Sputnik special, that and the mid-century atomic atmosphere.

This coffee house is so small they don’t even have a website. They also don’t take credit cards, so be sure to take cash. For hours and more information, call them at 519-273-6767. Sputnik is just a hop from The Verandah at 46 Ontario Street, which is .1 miles away, or about 200 steps.

Sputnik Espresso Bar

Saw this cartoon last year at Sputnik. It is applicable to me any day of the year. Thankfully, there are places like Sputnik all over Stratford to help make things better.

For more information about these and other coffee shops in Stratford, visit the food blog, Kitchen Dilettante.

Restaurants

It is important to note that many restaurants and shops are closed on Mondays in Stratford since the theaters are dark on that day. If they are open during the day on Monday, chances are good they will be closed on Monday evening. Be sure to check with the restaurant or shop for current hours.

The (OLD) Prune: Long ago, this restaurant was called The Old Prune, hence the parenthesis and the word “OLD” in the middle. Some still call it that. I did for a while because it was The Old Prune the first time I went there. Whether it is old or new, this has to be the best restaurant in Stratford. And that’s saying a lot because you can almost throw a stone from anywhere in town and hit a great restaurant. The Prune, though, is extra special. If there is one place in the world where I am bound to not only eat every crumb off my plate for every single course, but also to threaten to lick the plate itself, it is The Prune. Having left you with that pleasant image, if you only go to one high-end restaurant in Stratford, make it The Prune.

Calling all vegetarians: I know what you’re thinking. “If it’s that good, they probably make everything with duck fat and bacon.” Take heart, however. At The Prune, they offer an all vegetarian prix fixe menu. It’s true! And it’s all amazingly spectacular. Maybe that’s why this is my favorite restaurant.

Reservations are recommended, especially if you have a show to go to. They can be made by calling 519-271-5052, emailing reservations@theprune.com, or online at OpenTable.com.

The Prune is located at 151 Albert Street, which is a lovely half-mile walk from The Verandah. Walking there will give you approximately 1000 steps one way. Walking back will help you feel better after having embarrassed yourself by slurping up that last bit of malted chocolate ice cream. (Don’t worry. I did it too.)

Bijou:  The experience at Bijou is tres unique, at least in this part of North America. It is not unlike a comfy bistro in Paris and the food is just as good (if not–dare I say it–better). A new menu is born out of the changing seasons and availability of local produce. Because it changes so often, the only menu available can be seen on a chalkboard right outside the kitchen window. The menu is prix fixe. Choose two courses for $48 or three courses for $55.

Remember the vegetarian thing I mentioned earlier? Well, although Bijou does not always have vegetarian options on their menu, if you mention to the hostess while making reservations that someone in your party is vegetarian, they will go out of their way to prepare something wonderful for you. And it will knock your socks off.

Reservations are recommended, especially for dinner. They are not open on Mondays but for the rest of the week they have two seating times for dinner. The first seating is from 5pm to 6pm. The second seating is from 8pm to 9pm. Call 519-273-5000 to make reservations and to ask about lunch hours.

Bijou is located at 105 Erie Street, which is only .2 miles from The Verandah, or 400 steps one way.

Pazzo Ristorante, Pizzeria & Bar: This two-in-one restaurant/pizzeria can be a little confusing, but it’s worth checking out both options during a trip to Stratford. The restaurant, which is located at street level when you first walk in the door, is for those times you’re dressed up for the theater and want something a little more upscale than pizza. The pizzeria, downstairs, is where to go when you’re a little more casual and just want to satisfy that pizza craving we all get now and then. You can dress up at the pizzeria too. Lots of people go there before a show, but whether you go to the restaurant or the pizza place, make reservations by calling 519-273-6666 or 1-877-440-9666.

Pazzo is located in the heart of it all at 70 Ontario Street. This will earn you 400 steps, being that it is just .2 miles from The Verandah, so be sure and go to the restaurant one night and the pizza place another to get double the steps.

Chocolate Barr’s: This chocolate boutique may not be a restaurant, but it is definitely gourmet and deserves to be highlighted. It is a perfect place to buy handmade (and delicious) gifts, along with the best dark chocolate I have ever had. For those on Weight Watchers, this is good news because dark chocolate is not only good for you but, when broken in to bite-sized pieces, only costs a Point or two.

But there’s more good news! If you walk there from The Verandah, you can get around 600 steps one way! It’s located at 136 Ontario Street, which is about .3 miles away. Stop by for some chocolate, then walk across the street to Balzac’s for coffee. What more do you need?

Things to do

Stratford Shakespeare Festival 

With 14 shows playing at various times in four theaters, many of which are populated by names you are familiar with if you watch any movies at all, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival will steal your heart and create a longing to return year after year. It is high-quality theater, but not highfalutin and pretentious. Tickets can be had for a reasonable price, some starting around $30 per person. Even if you can only do it once, the experiences had, the stories told, the emotions felt are unforgettable and will last you a lifetime.

The Festival Theatre with its tent-like peaks.

There are four theaters and a theater annex which house the different plays in Stratford. The Festival Theatre, is the largest theater in town. It is is located at 55 Queen Street. It is what gave Stratford’s theater festival its start. What started as a tent in 1953 is now a lovely building with tent-like peaks around its roof. The start of each show and the end of each intermission at The Festival is punctuated with the sounding of horns urging you in. It makes the event feel like an event from the very beginning.

The trumpeters and drum call guests to the show from the balcony of the theatre.

To walk to the Festival Theatre from The Verandah will earn you not quite 2000 steps since it is almost a mile away. Imagine what that will be like when you return to your home away from home with a total of 4000 steps, and the breath of fresh air you can breathe not having to fight for parking!

The Avon Theatre is a bit closer to The Verandah. It is located at 99 Downie Street and, so, is right around .3 miles (or 600 steps) one way. The Avon used to be a vaudeville theatre and then a movie theater, but in 1963 was bought by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and made officially a part of the festivities.

The Avon Theatre lit up at night. This was the night we saw Christopher Plummer in “A Word or Two”.

The Studio Theatre and its Annex are not far from the Avon Theatre and, therefore, only add a few extra steps from The Verandah. It is located at 34 George Street East and is .4 miles, or about 800 steps from home. Both the Studio Theatre and the Studio Theatre Annex are more intimate spaces and are generally used for experimental plays and cabaret style shows.

Finally, the Thomas Patterson Theatre, which is named for the founder of the Stratford Festival, is another intimate theater which showcases both contemporary and classic shows. In the last two years, I have seen a vivid telling of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and an emotional Elektra by Sophocles, both of which could be argued as classic stories portrayed by the Stratford Creatives in very contemporary lights.

This theater is located a half a mile from The Verandah at 111 Lakeside Drive. You can earn 1000 steps walking along the lovely river to get there.

Walk along the river to the Thomas Patterson Theatre and you may catch site of beloved swans with their cygnets.

Stratford Summer Music Festival

If there is one thing I wish I had participated in more during my two-week stay in Stratford this year, it is the Stratford Summer Music Festival. All the locals I spoke to had been to at least one show and they all raved, especially about Jan Lisiecki, a young pianist who apparently put on an almost spiritual performance at St. Andrews Church.

Truly, music seemed to pour out of every crevice in town, but unless it was right there, I seemed to miss much of it. It was a pleasure to walk along the river and catch one of the shows happening at the barge, and soon after I left, the Play Me, I’m Yours street pianos arrived for anyone to enjoy.

Should you be a bit wiser than I am, go to Stratford during the the Summer Music Festival and soak it up, as well as the theater. Many shows and activities are free for the listening. You just have to be at the right place at the right time. I’m already planning for next year.

Walking Tours

One of the things that makes Stratford a walker’s paradise is the sheer number of walking tours offered through the Visitor Center. They have historical tours and architectural tours, garden tours and culinary tours. They even have a tour map for those interested in hitting all the favorited spots of local “It” boy, Justin Bieber, many of which are walkable around town.

The Visit Stratford website is a bit difficult to navigate. There’s just so much to do in Stratford that it seems they’re having a hard time knowing how to organize the information. My advice is to go to the Stratford Tourism Alliance when you get into town and ask them for information about walking tours. Some are free, others are between $6 and $8, depending on who is hosting them. The Tourism Alliance, though, will have all the information you need. Their main office is located at 47 Downie Street, or you can call them at 1-800-561-7926. There is also a small Visitor Centre located along the river, just beyond the Veterans Memorial plaza.

You can also do a small amount of searching with the free Visit Stratford app for your iPhone or Android phone. Although I couldn’t locate the free walking tours on the app, I did see information for all the places mentioned in this article, including The Verandah, restaurants, and other points of interest. It’s a good place to start.

The Avon River

The Avon River has some sort of magical, hypnotic powers. When walking along the meandering paths, a person can’t help but forget that time exists. All other pressures are massaged out of the shoulders and brain, thanks to the gentle roll of the water, the golden light of the sunset, or the fluttering leaves of the lazy trees. Add to that the bagpipes wafting from the Veterans Memorial plaza or the dixie music playing off the barge, and time definitely stands still.

The Avon River, the stone-arch bridge, and the courthouse are three icons of Stratford.

The Avon River

Cross under the stone-arch bridge to get from one side of it to the other and you’ll experience a picturesque view you only thought possible in England or France.

This is the oldest stone arch bridge still in use in Canada.

Walk under the bridge for a different way to The Shakespeare Gardens.

Once on the other side of the bridge, take in the Shakespeare Gardens. Be sure to walk all the way past Anne Hathaway’s house and the little gazebo. The trees grow tall and provide comforting shade on a hot summer’s day.

The Shakespeare Gardens sit right next to the Avon River.

Keep walking the path past the gazebo, into the trees and back around again.

This article only scratches the surface when it comes to what to see, do, and eat in Stratford. That’s why it’s a good idea to visit as often as possible, so you can see and do that much more the next time.

Have you been to Stratford? If so, where did you stay? What advice would you give someone going there? Do you have any questions about Stratford, The Verandah, or walking around town? Leave your questions and ideas in the comments section below. I look forward to hearing from you on one of my favorite subjects!

Stratford, Ontario: A love story

I have been putting off telling this story for weeks. The idea of uncovering for the world my love for Stratford, Ontario feels wrong in a way. Like a girl finally telling the boy she loves that she loves him, but doing it through a megaphone at a football game. It’s not that she worries the love will not be reciprocated, although maybe that’s part of it. It’s that by telling it, she reveals too much of herself and risks cheapening the love, bringing in too many outsiders into something that should be tenderly intimate. But I’ve got to take that risk, so here goes.

I love Stratford.

There, I said it. I love everything about it: the old shops along Ontario street, the Avon River, the trees surrounding the river, the Shakespeare Gardens, the tour guides who take you around the same routes telling you the same stories with the innocence of volunteers who love their town.

I love The Verandah, our home away from home when we visit Stratford.

I love the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. How could you not love the theater in this town? When I am there, I absorb the plays as if they are one layer deeper than my own skin, and I wear their memory for the whole year after, in some cases, even years to come.

The town of Stratford, alive with life.

This past year was my third time visiting Stratford. It was the longest visit–two weeks. We stayed, for the second time, in The Verandah, the place I dream about during the year when I have a hard day and need something soft and beautiful to remind me of joy and happiness.

Here it is just a storybook card, but I fell in love with the real Verandah.

Stratford is a town of 32,000 or so other people who love their town, at least that’s how it comes across. While I was there this year, we spoke with locals from different aspects of life and they all had the same thing to say: it is a great place to live. It is hopeful and lively. It is small-town life with the kind of world-class entertainment and cuisine that big cities dream of. It is thoughtful with things like recycling and seasonal food and supporting local businesses.

Of course, we cannot ever forget the theater. That’s part of the world-class entertainment and is what brings thousands of people to Stratford every year for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Still, with all the other things going on–music festivals, food festivals, daily visits to boutiques and antique shops, wiling a day away at a coffee house, luxuriating in the pleasures of a meal at The Prune or Bijou–whole days could potentially pass where no theater is experienced.

But it must be experienced.

The majesty of the Festival Theatre is celebrated with lush gardens and public art.

William Shakespeare in stainless steel (or aluminum?) in the gardens outside the Festival Theatre.

I saw a play there this year called Hirsch. Out of the five I saw, all of which were moving and powerful, Hirsch was the most powerful. It was about the Canadian director, John Hirsch, who was originally from Hungary and had been orphaned in World War II. He watched his mother carted off and never saw her again. He watched his uncle shot in front of him. They were Jews and treated the way Jews were treated by the Third Reich in World War II.

Terrifying things happened to this man before he was a teenager. Yet, as the story unfolded–and as I wept from the depths of my humanity that connects with such things–it demonstrated the courage it takes to live a real life. It showed how life grows on, in some ways because of what one has witnessed, and in other ways, in spite of it.

The actor, Alon Nashman, was also the creator of the play. He was brilliant. Brilliant. You know how I know? Because even now as I am writing this paragraph, I can call to mind the delightful laughter and the excruciating tears he pulled out of me with his story and his acting. He connected with me, a white, non-Jewish, 40-something American woman who has never experienced such discrimination, torture, and terror, and who has never been forced to find beauty and strength in that kind of loneliness.

His play and his acting are what stays with me today. The story inspires me to do the work that I do in the world, and it reminds me that nothing can be as scary as what that man experienced in his life. What fears I may have for any venture I take on cannot be half as terrifying as facing the world completely alone and ostracized as an orphaned Jewish boy after World War II. Yet, he found the strength and courage to not only keep going, but to become one of the greatest creative forces in Canada.

This is why I go to Stratford. It inspires me, it pushes me, it nourishes me in ways no other place can. I will carry the messages of the play and the story of John Hirsch for the rest of my life.

Then there’s Elektra. I read a comment someone made on the Stratford Festival Facebook page that it was not true to Sophocles. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t know, and I don’t really care. It was a story well told with a depth of emotion, and the emotions fleshed out in the characters (especially Elektra). What happened in that theater to actors and patrons alike far outweighs how it stands up to what Sophocles intended. The physicality of the play, the rhythm of it, the costuming, all the things those actors did, which seemed to me to be flawless and effortless, pulled together to become an enveloping tale about sorrow, loss, fear, and justice that rocked me to my very bones and left me feeling very much alive.

Christopher Plummer in A Word or Two was magnificent. It was an honor to see him perform live, especially given how intimate it was and how the one-man show was about his life. I can’t say it was the most powerful play–the two mentioned above get that nomination. But it was the one that takes my breath away when I think about it because it’s as if I got to see one of the Great Wonders of the World before it disappears. (And please, Mr. Plummer, if you ever read this, which I doubt you will, forgive me for comparing you to a large, ancient monument of some sort, but you must know I mean it with the greatest of humility and respect.)

The Avon Theatre, where we saw Christopher Plummer in “A Word or Two”.

The other plays, Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing were the two Shakespearean plays we saw out of the five. Of course, it is hard to go wrong with Shakespeare, but these two were not the ones that will stay with me all year. The acting was superb, of course. The costumes, amazing. The staging, incredible, especially the use of that massive door for Henry V, which they utilized in a million different ways to portray different scenes. Both plays were worth seeing. If I was in Stratford all season, I would go see them several times–but Hirsch and Elektra would be my picks if I had only time and budget for two.

When there are no plays to see–the theaters are dark on Mondays in Stratford–there is a wealth of things worth seeing and doing. It is important to point out, however, that part of the charm of Stratford is slowing down and not rushing from one thing to another. I do that all year in my regular life. I don’t need to do it in Stratford.

Summer there is lush with flowers and brimming with life. It is in Stratford that we might pause and enjoy this beauty. Starting at the Avon River, we watch as it lolls slowly under the stone-arch bridge.

What is left of an old wool mill and is now part of The Shakespeare Gardens which sits along the Avon River.

The stone-arch bridge is the oldest of its kind in Canada. It is still in use and is part of a major thoroughfare through the town. The steeple seen in the distance is the courthouse.

The beloved swans parade their regency of the waters and surrounding lands with their little cygnets. The trees dip their knobby elbows and fingers into the river, and their leaves provide a golden curtain to shield land lovers who sit on benches along the shore.

A male swan rests with the female (not shown) and their brood of cygnets by the river.

Chess anyone?

On one of the first days we were there I discovered the magic of sunsets in Stratford. I heard bagpipes coming up to the town from near the river and was drawn to see what sort of group was serenading the sun as it went down.

Two boys, one playing the bagpipes and one playing the snare drum, were in the plaza standing next to a war memorial. Beyond them was the Avon River, peaceful and permissive to their music. People gathered in the plaza, surrounded the boys, listening. Two little girls–about six and four–danced and hopped to the beat of the drum.

The pipes and drums serenade the sun as it sets.

When I arrived, there was a feeling of reverence toward the boys and their music. It seemed the perfect way to end a day. I scooted up on one of the half-walls that lines the plaza and listened. No one wanted to move while they were playing. If we did move, we were slow and respectful, as if we were in church and had just taken communion.

While the boys played, two little girls with bright orange hair came with their mother and sat across from me on the foot of the memorial. Were they put there to make the scene more authentic? Of course they weren’t, but the picture of Scottish music playing over a plaza with two wee girls of that heritage could not have been more complete. How adorably Scottish they were with their rolly cheeks and their shining braids. They sat sweetly in their little dresses, licking delicately at their ice cream cones, and they listened. While I was there, I imagined their souls being drawn to this music of their ancestors. I wondered if it was at all familiar to them. They surely were not out of place. Come to think of it, I have Scottish heritage. Perhaps that is what drew me as well, while my Polish-bred husband went on to the house, unmoved by the sounds.

Finally, I walked to the river. The music followed me there, to a leafy cocoon on the shore. The branches of the massive tree before me bent over and into the river. I imagined I was beneath the arm of a giant boy sticking his fingers out of a boat to feel the water on his fingertips. The stillness, the joy in my heart, the poetry of music and sunset, it all formed this love I carry with me.

A sanctuary built by nature.

When it was time to return home from the pipes and drum, I made my way across the familiar path I had come to know the year before–up the hill to town, across the busy street of Ontario, through a parking lot and down the graveled path of the pastoral Verandah.

Our half of The Verandah.

A warm welcome of hospitality awaits every visit.

Why it’s called The Verandah.

Debbie and Denis Harrison, the owners of The Verandah, clearly love their town and the home they open to others. The house is divided into two. On one side is where they live. On the other side is where we stayed for the second year in a row.

Debbie has decorated it with things she found all over Ontario, many of which had to be given new life with scrubbings, washings, sandings, new coats of paint–whatever it took to make it live again. She has breathed life into The Verandah, both in the structure of the 100-plus year-old home, and the things furnishing it.

Home Sweet Home.

Treasures and trinkets adorn every space.

There are nooks for every fancy. This one is in the master bedroom. That window is a door that opens onto a balcony.

The kitchen is well-furnished with pots, pans, dishes, and welcoming flowers.

The gardens surrounding it are cared for by her and her husband Denis. Even without the plays or the river, I would go to Stratford to stay in The Verandah. It is a retreat and a blessing to be there. If you knew how many pictures I took of their house so that I could look at them over the year when I cannot be there, you would think I was quite crazy. And I am–in the same way that someone is crazy when they fall in love.

Even the back door is a delightful sign of home.

More nooks–even for the birds.

A spot for dinner al fresco, complete with a large umbrella to shade the sun.

Beauty is everywhere at The Verandah.

I told myself I wouldn’t cry while writing this love letter, but it’s too late. And now I realize why it truly took me so long to compose it. I didn’t want the pain of missing it to scrape at my heart like it is doing now.

Times like these call for remembering what I have rather than what I don’t have and being grateful for it, so allow me a moment to be thankful.

Angels shall trumpet my love and gratitude.

I am thankful to my husband for making it possible for us to visit Stratford every year. I am thankful for such a place as Stratford, Ontario. I am grateful to Debbie and Denis for opening one side of their home so we may enjoy their hospitality and friendship. I am thankful for having such memories, for experiencing such joy. I am thankful for being in love and having something so worthy of my devotion that I can make a pilgrimage there every year to renew the wonder and joy it brings me.

That spark of joy you see in my husband’s eyes as he is being silly with one of my hats is another reason I love Stratford. It brings that out in both of us.

I am thankful for having the opportunity to be surrounded by beauty upon beauty.

And I thank you, dear reader, for sticking with me during this love letter. It makes me feel silly to gush, but I can’t help it. I hope you can see why. This is the only thing I will write in this way. Tomorrow we get back to business as I demonstrate how easy it is to walk Stratford from The Verandah, so stay tuned for “Walking Stratford”.

Thank you for allowing me to share my favorite place in the world with you.

Walking Austin

Austin, Texas is a city on the move. Everywhere you look, people are walking, biking, running, and Segwaying around town. And that doesn’t include those in Lady Bird Lake who are kayaking, rowing, and paddle-boating. Sidewalks are prevalent, even across the bridges that span the lake, which divides downtown from the hip neighborhood known as South Congress (SoCo). It’s as if, from the ground up, the city’s planners wanted people to get out and experience the city with all their senses–not just from the isolating seat of a car.

Austin has a myriad of activities, events, and sights to see, all within walking distance of downtown. It has a high walking score of 89, which makes it an easy place in which to get 10,000 steps a day, and a no-brainer for those of us who plan travel with walking in mind.

Hubby and I were in Austin for the week of May 6th through the 13th. Although we ate like kings and sometimes came home looking like wet rats thanks to some downpours, we managed to have the time of our lives and get at least 10,000 steps each day.

A bonus for visiting Austin was the opportunity to reconnect with some friends I hadn’t seen in nearly 12 years. Thanks to my friend Heather, who lives in Austin, we got to enjoy the city from a local’s perspective while reigniting old friendships. (Thanks, Heather!)

Where we stayed and why

The Four Seasons Austin was our chosen destination for this trip. It is located at 98 San Jacinto Boulevard, right on the banks of Lady Bird Lake, and within walking distance to pretty much anything we wanted to do downtown. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the hotel is pure luxury, with a relaxing spa and a team of helpful concierges on staff.

All distances and step calculations mentioned below are measured from the front door of the Four Seasons.

A view of Congress Avenue Bridge from our hotel room.

A view of the tops of trees and Lady Bird Lake from the balcony of our hotel room.

Trails and tons of public green space opened up behind the Four Seasons hotel to the edge of Lady Bird Lake. If you look closely in the trees, you can see a hammock set up for enjoyment on lazy summer afternoons.

Hubby’s office at the Four Seasons. Notice the fridge behind the desk, which the hotel provided so he could have store-bought yogurt, veggies, and fruit!

Groceries and other necessities

Royal Blue Grocery: There are two of these little bodega-style general stores located within a half a mile of the hotel. They carry all sorts of goodies for lunch and breakfast, including specially made salads and sandwiches in the refrigerated section. They also carry all the ingredients to make your own sandwiches and salads, along with pretty much any other kind of food or beverage you’d be in the market for. I preferred the lighter, fresher feel of the one on Congress to the one on 3rd Avenue, but both carry a bounty of grocery goods.

Royal Blue Grocery on 3rd Avenue: .4 miles from the hotel (800 steps one way)

Royal Blue Grocery on Congress: .5 miles from the hotel (1000 steps one way)

For $1 each, these tote bags from Royal Blue Grocery not only made it easy to carry our groceries around town, but they make for cheap, easy to pack, reusable souvenirs too!

Austin-inspired coffee we found at Royal Blue Grocery on Congress Avenue.

Whole Foods Market: Most metropolitan areas in the United States have a Whole Foods these days, but there is only one Whole Foods which can claim flagship status. That store is located at 525 N. Lamar Boulevard and is 80,000 square feet of natural and organic goodness. Their produce department alone makes even the gloomiest of people happy with all its fresh smells and bright colors. We were in the market for fruit, veggies, yogurt, and unique lunch items. Indeed, Hubby found a new favorite dark chocolate while there–Taza stone-ground organic chocolate.

Check out their calendar for special events that happen on their rooftop plaza, such as Sunset Supper Cinema.

Whole Foods Market on N. Lamar: 1.2 miles from the hotel (2400 steps one way)

Second Street Market: It’s not much to look at, but this dingy little store came through for us on a number of occasions. Our first night there, we weren’t sure yet what Royal Blue would have on hand so we stopped in for some sodas and bottled water. Throughout the rest of the week, Second Street was where we went when it was pouring rain outside and half a mile seemed too far to roam for odds and ends. Don’t count on them for a lot of selection. They truly are a convenience store and not meant to supply a household with groceries. They are located at 200 San Jacinto Boulevard.

Second Street Market: .2 miles from the hotel (400 steps one way)

Coffee

Caffee Medici: This cute little coffee shop is located at 200 Congress Avenue, right next door to Congress restaurant (see restaurant info below). It has an urban vibe to it and they pride themselves on providing one of the best cups of java around.

Caffee Medici: .3 miles from the hotel (600 steps one way)

Houndstooth Coffee: At nearly four miles away from the hotel, Houndstooth Coffee is, admittedly, a little too far even for us to walk. Still, I was taken there during my art tour of the city and I enjoyed it enough to pass it along as an option for coffee.

The Coffee Cup: This little shop was located within the Four Seasons complex on San Jacinto Boulevard and Cesar Chavez Street. Convenience is what made it so appealing.

The Coffee Cup: .0 miles from the hotel. (Approximately 100 steps one way.)

Other

University of Texas Fitness InstituteIf you are like my husband, and you have been on a weight loss journey recently, you may be wondering to yourself, “What exactly is my body fat percentage”? Look no further than the University of Texas Fitness Institute for a Body Composition Analysis.

For $90 each, we got a full-body scan using a bone density scanner (DEXA). After the scan, we were given printed results and a consultation with a fitness expert, who walked us through our results. The body composition information is broken down into arms, legs, trunk, hips, and abdomen. We also learned how our bone density was stacking up. As a woman in her 40s, I was very relieved to see that my bone density is quite good, but the fitness expert reminded me I will need to add some weight bearing exercises if I’m going to keep it that way.

For Hubby and me, this was a huge affirmation that we are on the right path. Now all we have to do is add some weights to our routine and we’ll be good to go!

The Fitness Institute of Texas: 1.7 miles from the hotel (3400 steps one way)

Car2Go: Although we never needed a car while we were in Austin, if we were in the city for longer than a week, I could see the advantage of registering with Car2Go for $35 in order to use their little Smart Cars parked all over town. For rates and more general information on how it works, check out their website. Their main office is located at 800 W. 5th Street, Suite 100B.

Car2Go: .9 miles from the hotel (1800 steps one way)

Car2Go seemed to be everywhere in the city.

Restaurants

Olivia: My friend Heather has lived in Austin for 15 years and she knows all the good spots. Olivia is one of them. She picked us up at our hotel and brought along another friend of mine for a mini high school reunion! This was the perfect spot–it had big open windows to let in welcoming light and a fun menu to explore.

Next time we’re in town, we’ll return to Olivia. This time, though, I’m going straight to dessert. The entrees were good, but the creme brûlée was sincerely the best I have ever eaten! (Thanks, Heather, for sharing it!) Sorry. No pictures were taken of the creme brûlée. It vanished before any of us could think of it! We did manage to get a shot of Hubby’s beautiful beet and goat cheese salad, though!

Olivia: 2.4 miles from the hotel (4800 steps one way)

Yum! Yum! Yum! Beets, goat cheese, cashews, a miniature pavlova, and chunks of caramel-ly white chocolate. I nearly lost a finger when I stole the last piece of white chocolate!

the backspace: Hubby found this pizza joint online and I’m glad he did. After walking all over the city on a rainy day, this tiny restaurant, with its brick oven glowing behind the bar, was a comforting place to dry off and unwind. We stuffed ourselves silly on delicious appetizers of local squash, pumpkin seed pesto, and pecorino romano, as well as, warmed marinated olives, lemon, mint, and oregano. When our margherita pizza came out we discovered we had just enough room to eat the whole thing! The backspace is located at 507 San Jacinto.

The backspace: .3 miles from the hotel (600 steps one way)

The backspace is a tiny restaurant. We got there right at 5pm to make sure we got a place to sit. It’s a great spot, don’t you think?

The warmth of the olives seemed to bring out their juicy flavors. So good!

parkside: Parkside is the sister restaurant to the backspace. They are located right next door to one another and owned by the same chef, Shawn Cirkiel, an Austin native. Since the backspace was so good, we decided to give parkside a try with my friend Heather on our last day in Austin.

Although parkside is known for its raw bar and oyster menu, we experienced the other side of the menu: excellent comfort food. The spring potato soup surprised me by being cold, but the flavors were so delicious that I couldn’t put my spoon down until I had eaten every drop–and I don’t usually like cold soups. Both Hubby and Heather ordered different salads: the butter lettuce salad for Heather, and the spiced beet salad for Hubby. Both mmm’d and ooo’d over their salads before continuing along that theme with their entrees of Dewberry Farms Chicken (for Heather), and Grilled Salmon (for Hubby). I loaded up on carbs that night by ordering and sharing a variety of sides: macaroni and cheese, polenta, grilled asparagus, and my all-time favorite, fried okra.

The picture below was taken after dinner when we were “fat and happy”, as they say.

parkside: .3 miles from the hotel (600 steps one way)

My friend Heather and I just outside parkside restaurant.

Hubby geared up with his local Austin beer and ready to order!

Congress: This was one of my favorite restaurant experiences outside of the ones shared with friends. The restaurant itself is understated elegance. There are magical teardrop chandeliers swirling and dripping from the ceiling. The chairs and tufted banquettes lend an air of comfortable sophistication as they are clad in what looks to be creamy linen. Warm woods frame the doors and cupboards, grounding the lighter, airier tones around the dining room.

The menu is either three-course or a seven-course chef’s tasting menu. No matter which you choose, be sure to go hungry because, by the time we got through the second course, I was stuffed. I’m still thinking about the tomato, plum, buratta salad I had at Congress. Buratta seems to be all the rage these days, available in nearly every high-end restaurant around the country. Chefs Bull and Meeker, though, separated Congress from the pack with their deliciously salty version combined with juicy tomatoes and plums.

If luxurious surroundings and thoughtfully delicious food weren’t enough, the service at Congress was some of the best we’ve experienced in a long time. It is what set the place apart for us. It made us want to stay and stay. Our water glasses were never empty and our other beverage glasses were refilled regularly with our drinks of choice. We never felt like we were overwhelmed by the service, but we also never lacked for anything either. It was just a very pleasant, delicious evening.

Congress = .3 miles from the hotel (600 steps one way)

Gordough’s: Okay, so I was good the whole time I was in Austin. I split entrees and dessert. I made sure to get at least three servings of fruit and vegetables each day. All that goodness deserves a little bit of bad, which is why I had to go to Gordough’s, the food truck specializing in big, greasy, made-to-order donuts.

Yes. They are good. No. I did not eat the whole thing. Fortunately, I had my friend Heather there with me so we could split it. Even then, though, we didn’t eat the whole thing. The “Dirty Berry” donut, with its grilled strawberries and melty fudge was just too much of a good thing.

Gordough’s = 1.4 miles from the hotel (2800 steps one way)

Heather sits before our Gourdough’s donut, ready to dig in!

We had the Dirty Berry: Fudge icing with grilled strawberries. Man, that’s a lot of donut!

Things to do

Art in Austin

As I mentioned in my previous article, art is a big deal in Austin and it is not to be missed. Below is a list of places I visited, thanks to the connections and coordination of the magnificent concierge at the Four Seasons, Daisy Undercuffler. For more information about these places, please see the article I wrote devoted to Austin art.

(Disclaimer: I am including step information for these art locations, but I did not walk to most of them myself. Now that I know where they are, though, I feel very comfortable doing it next time I’m in town.)

Gallery Shoal Creek is located at 2905 San Gabriel Street = 2.9 miles from the hotel (5800 steps one way).

Davis Gallery + Framing is located at 837 W 12th Street = 1.5 miles from the hotel (3000 steps one way).

Blanton Museum of Art on the UT Campus located at 200 East Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard = 1.4 miles from the hotel (2800 steps one way).

The Rapoport Atrium with the “Stacked Waters” tile installation wrapping the walls.

Austin Postcard Mural is located on the building of Roundhouse Relics at 1720 S 1st Street = 1.5 miles from the hotel (3000 steps one way).

This mural was painted on the side of the Roadhouse Relics building.

The Stevie Ray Vaughan statue is located along Lady Bird Lake Trail off of South 1st  Street. That is .8 miles from the hotel (1600 steps one way).

The Willie Nelson statue is located at 310 Willie Nelson Boulevard. That is .1 miles from the hotel, or 200 steps one way.

Willie Nelson statue on the corner of Guadalupe and Willie Nelson Boulevard. (Photo by M. Dryja.)

Following is the continued list of art spaces recommended by Daisy at the Four Seasons, as well as Judith Taylor at Gallery Shoal Creek, and Lisa Rogers at the Davis Gallery. I was not able to visit these places during my time in Austin, so I have not included the step counts. I did, however, include the addresses for each so the next time I visit Austin, it will be easy to look up distances and calculate steps. (Remember, 1 mile is approximately equal to 2000 steps.)

Arthouse at Jones Center provides exhibitions, educational opportunities, and special programs for experiencing modern and contemporary art. It is located at 700 Congress Avenue.

Wally Workman Gallery currently represents 56 local emerging and established artists. It is located at 1202 West 6th Street.

Austin Art Garage has an appealing philosophy: “We’re just two guys that wanted to make it easier to find and purchase original art without entering a world of debt. …[We] aim to expose emerging artists while giving customers a no-hassle system to find and purchase a variety of affordable one-of-a-kind art works.” They are located at 2200 South Lamar Boulevard.

The Visual Arts Center, located on the UT campus at 2300 Trinity Street, is where emerging artists, faculty, and students come together to share their art. (Check their website for hours. At the time of this writing, they were closed for the summer.)

Mexic-Arte Museum is “dedicated to enriching the community through education programs and exhibitions focusing on traditional and contemporary Mexican, Latino, and Latin American art and culture.” It was designated by the State Legislature of Texas as the Official Mexican and Mexican American Fine Art Museum of Texas. Visit it at 419 Congress Avenue.

Flatbed Press is a multi-use space which includes a publishing workshop as well as an art gallery. It is located at 2830 East MLK Boulevard.

Austin’s City Hall, the People’s Gallery is located at 301 West 2nd Street and is “designed to showcase regional artists and to encourage public dialog, understanding, and enjoyment of visual art.”

Central Market is a grocery store where you can see the large mural of local artist, Malou Flato, while picking up some produce. It is located at 4001 North Lamar Boulevard.

East Side Austin Showroom is a restaurant that supports local artists and apparently mixes a great cocktail. Add to that the fact that it keeps to Slow Food standards and this place seems to embody everything great about Austin. Can’t wait to try it out next time. It is located at 1100 East 6th Street.

Other things to do in Austin

Congress Avenue Bridge Bats: From March to mid-November the largest urban colony of Mexican free-tail bats in North America takes up residence under the Congress Avenue Bridge. Each night around sunset, between 750,000 and 1.5 million bats make a mass exodus from their perches beneath the bridge to go hunting for bugs. There are several ways to watch these little night flyers as they head out on their expeditions. Below are my recommendations.

Lonestar Riverboat CruiseAt $10 per person, this is a fairly inexpensive way to get up close and personal with the bats, right in the sight lines of their departure. Hubby and I chose this cruise line because it is family owned and their website indicated that they support local charities. Otherwise, there did not seem to be much difference between them and the other cruise line on the lake, Capital Cruises.

We were not disappointed. Half an hour before the bats were supposed to leave, our riverboat took a jaunt around Lady Bird Lake before heading to the Congress Avenue Bridge, where we watched the tiny little bats drop from their perches and fly away. Both cruise lines are located along the lake just behind the Hyatt Hotel. We walked from the Four Seasons, across Congress Avenue Bridge, down the steps and west along the trail until we came to the Lone Star Riverboat dock. Located around 208 Barton Springs Road, it is .6 miles from the Four Seasons (1200 steps one way).

Lone Star Riverboats have a small fleet of boats to take you around Lady Bird Lake. (Photo by M. Dryja.)

Walk along the lake trail:  All along Lady Bird Lake there is a walking trail. On our last night in Austin, I took a walk with my friend Heather just in time to watch the bats leave for hunting. We were on the north side of the lake and caught great glimpses of bats swooping overhead. It is my understanding that the south side of the lake has an even better view of them, but I was perfectly happy with what we saw.

One recommendation I would make is to stand along the edge of the trail, out of the way of walkers and runners, and look up, along the edge of the trees hanging out over the water. Bats zoom and swoop effortlessly, as if hurled around the tree lines, so we had to keep our eyes open to the skies. If we blinked, we would have missed some. We also knew they were coming because they make a signature high-pitched “peep”. There were several people who sat up on the lawn off the trail and they said they didn’t see any bats, so it seems important to step up closer to the water and keep your eyes pointed toward the zipping blurs in the sky.

Bonus: While we were waiting for the bats to come out, we saw some animal that lives in the water–it looked like a beaver–swim to the shore and dive into the foliage along the lake, so you never know what you’re going to encounter when you’ve got your eyes open and Mother Nature is your guide.

This walk took us back behind the hotel and along the trail, about 100 feet from the bridge. We may have gotten 100 steps for that walk, but it is hard to calculate.

This is a map of the lake trails given to us by the Four Seasons. When Heather and I walked to see the bats, we stood right around where it says “4-Mile Mark”.

Texas State Capitol: Texans are known for doing things BIG and the state capitol is no different. According to the Texas State Preservation Board, it is “the largest in gross square footage of all state capitols and is second in total size only to the National Capitol in Washington, D.C.” It is built up on a hill and Congress Avenue was built such that, for two miles south of it, there is a direct-line view of this massive building.

The stunning capitol building in Austin.

Although Hubby and I did not take a tour of the inside, we did walk around the outside of it on several different occasions and enjoyed the beautiful, lush grounds. On the State Preservation Board website, there are pamphlets available for download for self-guided walking tours inside the building, as well as outside on the capitol grounds. It truly is an impressive structure.

The State Capitol Building is located at 1100 Congress Street, which is 1 mile from the Four Seasons hotel (2000 steps one way).

Treaty Oak: More than 500 years ago, a grove of trees stood in the area now known as Treaty Oak Park. Back then, it was considered a sacred meeting place for the Comanche and Tonkawa tribes. Today, only one tree of the original 14 remains. In 1927, the American Forestry Association proclaimed the tree to be the most perfect specimen of a North American tree. Before it was vandalized in 1989, its branches spanned 127 feet.

Thanks to the preservation and rehabilitation efforts of many, the tree, which was poisoned with a large amount of incredibly toxic poison and predicted to die as a result, survived and has even gone on to produce acorns again. It is a beautiful tree, thick in its natural state.

To see this 500 year old tree, go to Treaty Oak Park on Baylor Street, between 5th and 6th Avenue. The distance from the Four Seasons is 1.2 miles (2400 steps one way).

Beautiful Treaty Oak.

The history of Treaty Oak.

The Spa at Four Seasons: After walking all over town, Hubby and I decided to treat ourselves to massages. I also had a manicure and pedicure. The spa is cozy and relaxing. The changing rooms provide electronically locked lockers, and they have showers and a sauna. The treatment rooms I visited, along with the waiting area, all had luxurious floor-to-ceiling windows that brought in peaceful, natural light, as well as views of the overflowing gardens.

The treatments were just what we needed to unwind. My massage was the 80-minute Relaxation Massage with Janet. Hubby went with a more intense Deep Tissue massage. Both therapists coaxed the knots, aches, and pains from our bodies.

I met Pam for my manicure and pedicure. She did a great job of polishing my nails to a beautiful shine and somehow managed to clean up my cuticles without making them peel the next day. I don’t know how she did that, but I am deeply impressed!

Unfortunately, we did not get many steps for walking to the spa since it is on the lower level of the Four Seasons hotel, but given that we walked more than 10,000 steps a day while we were in Austin, I think a little treat was in order.

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Austin is a city rich in culture, history, natural beauty, and innovation. For its size, it is fairly safe and is incredibly easy to explore on foot. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that a week is not long enough to see and do everything in this state capitol, but one visit was enough to convince me that it is worth returning to.

Do you have a favorite place to go or thing to do in Austin? If so, share the wealth in a comment below! I love hearing from my readers! You always amaze me with your insights and ideas.