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.

Walking Toronto

I find rain to be exhilarating. I associate it with splashing in puddles wearing brightly colored rain boots and the whimsy of spring flowers. It can be a trickster, catching you unawares without an umbrella, so that you arrive drenched like a dog just getting out of the lake. In these moments, it levels the playing field, making even the best coiffed among us into just another human being with wet hair. To my knowledge, although plenty have been reduced to humiliation by rain, no one has ever actually melted from it.

During our short time in Toronto in September 2011, we got to test this theory three times: once on the day we arrived, once when we were out running errands, and once when we were trying to get to a restaurant three miles away. Each time, Hubby seemed convinced we were either going to drown in the drops, or that the water was molton lava, because he worried and fretted the entire time we were splashing through the downpours. It was quite adorable, really, to see him so concerned about me. He looked for overhangs that we could walk under and asked me a thousand times, “Are you okay?”

I was. The streets were shiny, the lights above were softened, the colors of the flowers popped through the grayness of the day. The rain made a beautiful city even more beautiful.

Blurry lights in the night rain of Toronto.

Of course, Toronto isn’t all about rain. It is a city that luxuriates in diversity. Even the weather is diverse. What is it they say? If you don’t like the weather in Toronto, just wait 10 minutes. Its motto is “Diversity Our Strength” and everywhere you go there is evidence of all the cultures, peoples, and possibilities that make up Toronto. No wonder I love it there.

Where we stayed and why:

Two identical condos are for short-term rent by the same trustworthy owners, Troy and Maria Sedgwick, at a high rise building located at 30 Grand Trunk Crescent in Toronto. The condos are fully furnished. They both have two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and great views of Toronto Island and Lake Ontario. I loved listening to the ferry boats coming in and out of the harbor nearby. You can also see Rogers Centre, the CN Tower, and Roundhouse Park from the windows and balconies.

View of Lake Ontario and Toronto Island. (Photo from the VRBO.com listing.)

Three key features which helped us decide on this rental were:

  • a desk area with high-speed internet;
  • a washer and dryer in the unit;
  • and, of course, walkability to practically everything we wanted to do in the city.

A view of the living area from the kitchen right after we got there. The whole place is less than 1000 square feet, but it feels bigger.

Hubby’s workstation set up and ready for business.

The kitchen seemed well-equipped. I say “seemed” only because we really did not use it for much other than storing the food we bought. We never actually cooked there. It even comes with a Keurig coffee maker and supplies, but we ended up going out for coffee a couple of times a day.

This is a view of the kitchen for the unit on the 35th floor. The kitchen on the 26th floor is identical, but has darker cabinets. (Photo from the VRBO listing.)

One surprise bonus was that, just leaving the condo and walking to the elevator gave us about 100 steps each time. It adds up if you do it enough!

All step and mileage calculations listed below are based from the front door of the building to a particular location.

Groceries and other necessities:

Longo’s: This higher-end grocery store had everything we needed for our stay in Toronto, including a Starbucks for a quick morning coffee run.

Longo’s = 200 steps one way (.1 miles)

A view of Longo’s grocery store located about a block from the condo building. (Photo provided by VRBO listing.)

Convenience Store: At the street level of the building was a small convenience store where I bought an umbrella and we picked up soft drinks and juice. Because it is in the same building, it is hard to give the mileage, but I believe it was about 100 steps one way.

Coffee:

Starbucks: If we had had more time, we would have explored the quirky coffee places I have read about in Toronto. As it was, we got a little lazy and stuck with the Starbucks that was in Longo’s, which was the closest coffee we could find in the zombie-like state that is early morning.

Starbucks = 200 steps one way (.1 miles)

Here are two places I’ll go for coffee the next time I’m in Toronto:

Balzac’s: First of all, how can you see the name of the place and not at least secretly smile like an adolescent boy? I fell in love with it in Stratford, Ontario, which I have written about in another blog and will be writing about again very soon! I did not make it to the Toronto version in the Distillery District at 55 Mill Street in Building 60. It is definitely high up on the list of “must-dos” for next time.

Balzac’s = 3000 steps (1.5 miles)

Tequila Bookworm Cafe and Books: Located at 512 Queen Street West, this little cafe came to my attention after returning from Toronto.

Tequila Bookworm = 2820 steps (1.41 miles)

Other:

Enterprise Rental Car: We rented a car to drive out to Stratford, Ontario for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. It was easy to return from the condo building because it was less than a quarter of a mile away at 200 Front Street West in Simcoe Place.

Enterprise Rental Car = 600 steps one way (.3 miles)

Restaurants:

Scaramouche: In our nearly three weeks in Ontario, Scaramouche was a stand-out above all others. Located at 1 Benvenuto Place, it was our very favorite place to eat. The food was delicious and the service was some of the best we’ve ever had.

We learned about Scaramouche through one of those serendipitous moments travelers rely on. We happened to have been seated next to Morden Yolles, one of the partners of Scaramouche, when we were at a different restaurant in Stratford. We were also lucky to see him again when we visited his restaurant in Toronto.

On the evening we were to trek to Scaramouche, we encountered another downpour. A quarter of a mile into our walk, Hubby decided we needed a cab, so, after much strategizing during the rush hour rain, we managed to get a taxi to take us to the restaurant. Happily, by the time we finished eating and were full as Australian sheep ticks, as my dad would say, we were able to walk the 3 miles back to the condo, enjoying the different neighborhoods and parks as we went. As a result, this was my favorite evening in Toronto.

Scaramouche = 6200 steps one way (3.1 miles)

Volos: This Greek restaurant, located at 133 Richmond Street West, was also a favorite. Not only were we warmly welcomed, we were treated to the bright, bold flavors of a talented chef and staff. We savored the rich earthiness of grilled vegetable orzo and spanakorizo. I had the freshest Horiatiki (Greek) salad I have ever had outside of Greece. It had olives that practically burst with juiciness and feta that melted on my tongue. To top it all off, they had an espresso that had a pleasingly smooth aroma and flavor. For more about our experience at this restaurant, please visit another article I wrote about Volos.

Volos = 1400 steps one way (.7 miles)

Things to do:

Hippo Tours: I took the 90-minute city tour with this company, but I have learned they are not operating in Toronto anymore. If you’re in Vancouver, though, you might want to check them out!

How can you see a bus with a purple hippo painted on the side and not want to ride it?

Me on the Hippo Bus, tooling around Lake Ontario. See the waves out the window?

A beautiful view of the city from the Hippo Bus/Boat in Lake Ontario. See? The rain cleared up! It was a gorgeous day!

With the purple hippos ambling toward Vancouver, allow me to recommend the other tour company I was considering if I hadn’t chosen the Hippo:

Toronto Tours: The Hop On Hop Off City Tour appealed to me because I could customize the tour to what I wanted to see and do, or, I could sit on the bus for 2 hours and catch it all at once. Rates for adults start right at $40US. Children are $20US. This tour picks up from a variety of locations. I chose the pick-up location closest to where we were staying.

Toronto Tours = 600 steps one way (.3 miles)

Toronto Eaton Centre: I am not a mall or shopping kind of person, but I know others make a sport out of it. So, if you’re jonesin’ for some shoppin’, Toronto Eaton Centre will set your cravings at ease. While we were in Toronto, we made the trek to Eaton Centre because it was where the Apple store was and Hubby needed something from there. They have arranged the mall such that, the higher floor you go, the higher the price tags. I thought that was pretty clever.

Toronto Eaton Centre = 2200 steps one way (1.1 miles)

Roundhouse Park, Rogers Centre, CN Tower: All three of these landmarks are just across the street from the condo building. The whole area was sort of magical to walk around at night with the way it was lit. Next time Hubby and I are going to stop into the Steamwhistle brewery located in Roundhouse Park for a tour.

Roundhouse Park, Rogers Centre, CN Tower = 1000 steps one way (.5 miles)

The CN Tower and Rogers Centre.

Nathan Phillips Square houses the modernist Toronto City Hall on one of its corners. We watched a moving memorial in this square, dedicated to those whose lives were lost and those who gave themselves in service during 9-11 in New York. It seemed always bustling with activity and is a great people-watching destination. Bonus: According to the National Geographic Traveler, if you visit Toronto in the winter, you can ice skate on the frozen reflecting pool in the square. How fun is that?

Nathan Phillips Square = 2000 steps (1 mile)

A gorgeous night shot of Nathan Phillips Square and the impressive Toronto City Hall. (Photo by Benson Kua from Wikipedia.org.)

Queen’s Park: This is a lovely, lush park that I found to be delightfully quiet in the heart of such a grand city. It borders parts of the University of Toronto and is home to the Ontario Legislative Building. Free guided tours are available through the Legislative Building, if that is of interest. Call 416-325-7500 for more information.

Queen’s Park = 2800 steps (1.4 miles)

The Legislative Building at Queen’s Park lit up at night. (Photo by Paul (dex) on Wikipedia.com.)

When I go back:

Royal Ontario Museum: If I could spend just one day in Toronto and do only one thing, this is where I would go. The mission of the ROM speaks to a passion of mine. It is “to build bridges of understanding and appreciation for the world’s diverse cultures and precious natural environments”. Its exhibits showcase a mixture of natural history and world cultures.

Adult tickets are $15CN. For more information on ticket prices, or to buy them online, visit their website. If you go on a Friday between 3pm and 5:30pm, the ticket prices drop significantly.

If I was there on a Friday night between April and late-June, I would go to the Friday Night Live events where special guests provide sneak peeks into exhibits and activities. You have to be 19 years or older to get in for those events. The cover charge is $8 for students with ID and $9 for everyone else. Members get in free.

ROM = 4200 steps one way (2.1 miles)

Distillery District: The culture of Toronto seems to have been distilled (pun intended) into one place, the Distillery District. There are not just historic breweries housed on these brick-lined streets, there are art galleries, cafes, theaters, restaurants, boutiques, and other facets of culture unique to Toronto. This is where lots of music and art festivals are held. Check the calendar for events happening during your visit to Toronto.

One of my favorite things to do is ride a Segway and you can do that here with a Segway Distillery Tour. Prices start at $69 per person and last 60 minutes. There are also shorter tours and walking tours available in the Distillery District.

Distillery District = 3000 steps one way (1.5 miles)

St. Lawrence Market: Go to their website and try not to drool. It’s almost impossible. This market, located at 92-95 Front Street East, was named the Number 1 Food Market in the World by the National Geographic. It seems practically brimming with local vendors selling local wares to locals.

St. Lawrence Market = 2000 steps one way (1 mile)

Canadian Opera Company: When we visited, the 2011/2012 season had not yet started, but we passed the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts quite often during our walks. It was dripping with gorgeous images of operas to come. The National Ballet of Canada performs in the Four Seasons Centre as well. I’d love to be in town for one of their shows. The Four Seasons Centre is located at 145 Queen Street West.

Four Seasons Centre = 1600 steps (.8 miles)

Walking St. Paul: Planning a footloose and car-free vacation to Minnesota’s seductive capital

We eloped at the Chapel of Love in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota!

More than 15 years ago, Hubby and I lived in a high-rise condo in downtown Minneapolis. It never occurred to me until recently that, back then, we walked everywhere because of the Skyway system which connects most of the downtown buildings. Those little “high rise habitrails” keep the cold out in winter and the humidity out in summer, and I knew them like the back of my hand. At the time, though, we didn’t have pedometers or a weight problem. We were fit and fabulous in our mid-20s, just settling into married life.

Having just celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary, we are, of course, 16 years older. And, if you’ve been keeping up with this blog, you know that we’ve made lots of changes in the last year which have taken us back in time somewhat, to bodies that are fit and free from the rituals of “middle aged medicines”. In fact, we both weigh less today than we did when we first met!

As a result of these positive changes, we’ve been drawn to traveling to places where we can get 10,000 steps a day (or 5 miles) simply by walking to places we need to go, such as restaurants, grocery stores, and cultural sites. Over the next several weeks, this blog will be devoted to sharing everything we learned on those trips, city by city.

The series is called “Walking America” and it takes us across the United States and into Canada. Each adventure will demonstrate the car-free travels we took with resources for planning a similar trip. Just imagine the cash you’ll save not having to rent a car!

Let’s get started.

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Walking St. Paul

In early July of last year, we hitched a flight from steamy Phoenix, Arizona to the cooler but more humid Twin Cities in Minnesota. It was the first of several trips we took that summer, but we were not headed to our old stomping grounds in Minneapolis. Our destination was St. Paul, the other sister of the Twin Cities.

St. Paul Power Plant at sunrise. (Photo by JT Miller Photography.)

St. Paul rarely registered on our list of places to go when we lived in Minneapolis. My impression back then was that it was the boring sister of the two twins. Minneapolis seemed vibrant, sexier. Take, for example, Nicollet Avenue, a long pedestrian-only road in the heart of Minneapolis which, during the summer, boasts a thriving farmers market. Year round, there are shopping and dining options open for shoppers and diners of all financial means. It is protected from hard summer sun by the mirrored skyscrapers. And, on all sides are options for entertainment of all shades and varieties.

Nicollet Mall: The corner where Mary Tyler Moore threw her hat up in the air in the opening credits of the vintage television show with the same name. (Photo by jpellgen.)

St. Paul, on the other hand, was always a jumbled mystery for me. It seemed fragmented and confusing. What I didn’t understand in my youth, however, is that, while Minneapolis is attractive with its youthful glitter and nouveau sophistication, St. Paul is all slow-simmering seduction. It unravels itself to you in quiet, sultry come-ons, keeping hidden under the lushness of her old-growth trees all of her delicious secrets.

St. Paul is the capital of Minnesota. It has inspired famous states men and women, radio essayists, cartoonists, musicians, artists, and novelists. To name a few you may have heard of, there’s Garrison Keillor, known for his tales from “Lake Wobegon”, who still owns a home and a charming bookstore in St. Paul. Charles Schulz, creator of the long-standing Peanuts cartoon, grew up there. F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of such Jazz Age books as The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise, was born and raised there. In fact, you can find a couple of the places he lived still standing and commemorated with a plaque. It seems like everywhere you look you come across another familiar voice inspired by St. Paul.

This city is perhaps best known by its seedy gangster history from the 20s and 30s, when tough guys like John Dillinger and Babyface Nelson hid out there. There are even tours in St. Paul based solely on the exploits of such criminals and, when visiting certain watering holes and coffee shops, if you tap the right shoulder, you’ll get an earful of myths and mysteries associated with this past.

In the two weeks we spent there Hubby and I were seduced by St. Paul’s cool limestone mansions, its smoothed cobblestone alleyways, the stories  and myths of its juicy past, and innumerable  buildings brimming with character. We were drawn by the delicious aromas wafting down Selby and Grand, and smitten by the intellectual murmurings carried on over meals and cocktails. It is a place with its own rhythm, one which is punctuated by a slow, sultry Jazz saxophone, and it is easy to get lost in the flow of it. Before long, you find yourself tapping your finger and swaying to that rhythm. Then, when the spell is cast, you find you simply can’t get this daring twin out of your head.

Where we stayed and why:

Front of The Berg House in St. Paul. (Photo provided by Svein and Olga Berg.)

The Berg House is a vacation rental located at 128 Saint Albans St. N in St. Paul. We stayed there because it is within about a half a mile to almost everything we wanted to do. It has three bedrooms and two bathrooms, with extra futons and pull-out sofas for  larger families and groups. It has a kitchen equipped with enough essential tools that I made Breakfast Cookies for Hubby when the need arose. All I had to do was buy the ingredients.

Kitchen equipped with lots of great tools for cooking and baking. (Photo by Svein and Olga Berg.)

Also important to our stay was access to high speed internet and a desk or table on which Hubby could do his work. The Berg House actually has high speed and wireless, along with two office areas with large desks to spread out computer equipment and papers.

Third bedroom upstairs with perfect desk for getting work done. (Photo provided by Svein and Olga Berg.)

Having a choice of desks meant we were able to work while we played in St. Paul. (Photo by Svein and Olga Berg.)

My favorite space was the upstairs bathroom. It was recently redone with a claw foot tub and separate shower. The vanity was charming. It appeared to have been a dresser at some point, but was repurposed for the sink and its fixtures.  The morning light filtered through white shutters onto the sage colored walls and white tiles and, when listening to Carmen Cuesta’s Mi Bossa Nova album on my iPhone, the outside world melted away.

Upstairs bathroom--very spa-like. (Photo provided by Svein and Olga Berg.)

During our two weeks there the sun shone brightly almost every day. Temperatures flirted with 90-degrees Fahrenheit. We kept cool with plenty of window air conditioning units located throughout the home, and in the late afternoons, we chatted under the trees on the patio.

Sunny days were lovely in the shaded backyard. (Photo provided by Svein and Olga Berg.)

Groceries:

Mississippi Market on Selby. (Photo provided by Mississippi Market website.)

Just a couple of blocks from The Berg House at 622 Selby Avenue was the Mississippi Market, a natural foods co-op that provided us with fruit, veggies, milk, and all the other necessities we needed to eat breakfast and lunch at home. The Bergs gave us their member number so we were able to get membership rates at that store.

Mississippi Market = 200 steps one way (.1 miles)

Drug store:

Because this was early on in our walking experiment, Hubby was still taking cholesterol medication. We ended up extending our stay but one of his prescriptions ran out while we were there. I was able to fill it about half a mile away at the Walgreen’s at 734 Grand Avenue.

Walgreen’s = 800 steps one way (.4 miles)

Coffee:

On my return walk from Walgreen’s, I stopped in to Caribou Coffee for two Americanos and took them back to The Berg House for both of us to enjoy.

Caribou Coffee is a Minnesota-born chain, which I believe has expanded its territory beyond the confines of the Land of 10,000 Lakes. This one is located at 757 Grand Avenue.

Caribou Coffee = 800 steps one way (.4 miles).

Other coffee places nearby:

Nina’s Coffee Cafe: This is my favorite coffee shop to visit while in St. Paul. It is located in an historic building and named for Nina Clifford, a woman famous for the brothel she ran in the late 1800s. It is also known for being a great place to write and, while sitting back and watching the ebb and flow of its visitors, I can vouch for it being an inspirational place. It is located at 165 Western Avenue N.

Nina’s Coffee Cafe = 1200 steps one way (.6 miles)

Nina's Coffee Cafe. (Photo by Jordon Whitney.)

Caffe Latte: This cafe has a coffee shop further into the building, on the back side of the cafeteria style restaurant. I have eaten in the cafeteria twice for lunch and had coffee there after dinner elsewhere on Grand. It is a sunny place to enjoy coffee, dessert, and/or breakfast, lunch, or dinner. One thing I appreciate is the variety of options on their menus. There are sandwiches, soups, salads, and pizzas available to people with all eating habits: vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, and meat eaters! It is located at 850 Grand Ave.

Caffe Latte: 1,000 steps one way (.5 miles)

There is often a long line at the cafeteria because the food is so good! (Photo from the Caffee Latte site.)

Dunn Bros.: Dunn Bros coffee is another favorite place to stop for some java, but it is, unfortunately almost two miles away from The Berg House. We didn’t take any integrated walks there, but it is worthwhile stopping in for a growler of iced coffee should your adventures take you past one. The closest one to the Berg House is located at 242 W 7th St.

Growler of iced coffee from Dunn Bros.

Other:

Had we wanted to cook more while we were there, my friend Rhonda showed me where the Coastal Seafoods market was with all things fresh fish. It is located at the corner of Grand Avenue and Snelling at 74 S. Snelling.

Coastal Seafoods = 4,000 steps one way (1.9 miles)

Restaurants:

Visiting St. Paul is always a culinary delight. We are lucky enough to have friends in the area who know St. Paul’s restaurants very well. My friend Rhonda is an expert in great food. During an earlier visit, she introduced me to Salut and La Grolla, which I, in turn, introduced to Hubby. Fortunately, both of these restaurants are within walking distance to The Berg House. See below for descriptions and distances for these and other restaurants we enjoyed during our stay.

W.A. Frost's patio at night. (Photo by Sharyn Morrow.)

W.A. Frost: Located at 374 Selby Avenue, across the street from Nina’s Coffee Cafe, is a restaurant which describes itself best on its website: “casual upscale American cuisine”. The reason to go there is not only the amazing soups, but the patio. (The other food is good too, but the soup was a stand-out.) Oh! The patio! It is wonderfully shaded all around and a great place to unwind after a long day. The service was so-so. One time we went there, the service was impeccable. The next time it was carelessly slow. Still, we go back because the food is good and the patio is divine.

W.A. Frost = 1,200 steps one way (.6 miles)

Pazzaluna: This yummy Italian restaurant, located at  360 St. Peter Street, is just on the outskirts for the distance Hubby and I will walk for a restaurant. My friend Rhonda took me there during a separate visit a year or two ago. I discovered that, not only could I find many delicious vegetarian choices, I might run into a celebrity! My friend’s husband stood side-by-side in the restroom with Prince once.

Pazzaluna = 3,800 steps one way ( 1.9 miles)

Salut Bar Americain: Located at 917 Grand Avenue, this little brasserie will make you feel like an American in Paris. It offers hearty French-style food and lots of it. For those of us watching our waistlines, it can be a little tricky, but all of their fish items have the option of being cooked “simply grilled”, which is what Hubby opted for. At the time, there was a delicious watermelon-mint salad on the menu that I thoroughly enjoyed. Maintaining weight loss tip: order items you can split with one another so you don’t eat the whole thing by yourself.

Salut = 1,200 steps one way (.6 miles)

La Grolla: This restaurant is located at 452 Selby Avenue. It is, as you can guess from the name of it, Italian cuisine. I usually had one of their vegetarian pasta options (staying away from cream-sauced choices) and a side salad. They offer some great fish options as well.

La Grolla = 1,000 steps one way (.5 miles away)

Punch PizzaThis is good, quick thin-crust pizza on 769 Grand Avenue.

Punch Pizza = 800 steps one way (.4 miles away)

Chipotle: This build-a-burrito-style Mexican chain is a staple for Hubby and me. It’s fresh and, because you choose what you want every step of the way, it is easy to make the meal Weight Watcher’s friendly. The one closest to the Berg House is at 867 Grand Avenue.

Chipotle = 1,000 steps one way (.5 miles)

Broadway Pizza: There is really only one restaurant in the area for which I would break down and use a car. It is Broadway Pizza. I have loved their pizza since we lived there so long ago. The location at 2025 West River Road in Minneapolis is the original (and my favorite). It has the whole kitschy railroad theme still intact after all these years. Left to my own devices, I would eat a whole cheese pizza on my own. Thankfully, I’ve always gone with others so I could keep my discipline in check.

Broadway Pizza = In case you do eat the whole pizza and need lots of steps, it is worth 16,400 steps one way from The Berg House (8.2 miles).

Things to Do:

Tours

Human on a Stick Magical History Segway Tour: If you have never taken a Segway tour, I highly recommend it. I’ve taken two tours with this company–the St. Paul tour and the Minneapolis tour. The next time I’m in town, I’m going to do the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden tour too. For the St. Paul tour, the meeting location was at the parking lot behind St. Paul’s United Church of Christ. We got our helmets and our Segways and were off! Had this been our first tour, we would have also gotten the safety instructions and about half an hour to try it out before heading onto the streets and sidewalks. For $80 per person, plus tip, we got the gear we needed and more than six miles worth of up-close-and-personal history.

Segway Tour meeting location = 1,400 steps one way (.7 miles)

Look closely to see me on my Segway under the War Memorial for those who served in Korea.

Twin Cities Tours: Doug Rosenquist customized a tour of St. Paul for me a year and a half ago when I was doing research for a book I’m writing. I can’t say enough good about his personalized, private tours. If you’re uncertain about what to see in St. Paul, check out the themes he proposes on his website, or talk to him about what is important to you. He will help you customize something that will leave you with lots of great memories of your time in St. Paul.

Doug’s tours are set mostly in his comfortable tour van. To get your steps in, see if he would be amenable to a walking tour. Or, he will pick you up wherever you ask, so have him meet you at a location that you walk to. One suggestion? Ask him to meet you at the Minnesota History Center located at 345 Kellogg Boulevard West. Then, when your tour is over, you can eat lunch at the cafe there and go explore the exhibits at the center.

Minnesota History Center = 2,800 steps (1.4 miles)

"Vision of Peace" by Carl Milles was seen on my tour with Twin Cities Tours in the St. Paul City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse. It is three stories tall!

If you do any of the tours mentioned above, you will either come across and/or go into all of the below, so I will not spend a great deal of time detailing what they are and why you should go there. In fact, you could use the list below to take your own walking tour since it is the “basic” list of what to see in St. Paul. But if you’re like me, you want to know more about a place before visiting there, so check out the links to each one for more information. Step counts from The Berg House to all of these locations are provided.

Brain Candy

Ax-Man Surplus: Once you’ve skimmed the intellectual side of St. Paul with great historical and architectural tours, give your brain a party by taking it to Ax-Man Surplus. This is something you might want to do on a day when you have time to walk there and spend the rest of the afternoon looking at all the cool stuff they have. It is located at 1639 University Avenue West.

Ax-Man Surplus: 5,400 steps one way (2.7 miles)

Shops on Grand AveFor retail therapy, a good place to eat, or just in the mood for strolling and people watching, Grand Avenue is about half a mile (1,000 steps) from the Berg House. If you walk it, starting at Dale Street South and walking all the way to Lexington Parkway, you will walk a mile, or 2,000 steps one way.

This list, of course, is in no way exhaustive for what there is to do in St. Paul. Each season brings its own set of ideas too. For July 4th, go to the 7th Street Bridge and watch the fireworks going off at Harriet Island. In the winter, you cannot miss the St. Paul Winter Carnival, which celebrates the cold out in the cold.

No matter when you go, St. Paul is sure to lead you in a dance of seduction you will never forget–especially if you remember that this dance requires walking shoes.

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Coming up: Walking Toronto