Quirky Washington DC Spots: Our Favorites

While I’ve been loving living in Indonesia thus far, I got homesick upon returning from my two-week trip to the US. This is when America’s capital came to mind again: so I decided to write a post about my friend and I’s favorite quirky Washington DC spots!

US Capitol Hill

Photo by Phil Ostroff via Trover.com

Henley Park Hotel: Unique Accommodation

926 Massachusetts Ave. NW, 20001

When I travel, I avoid chain hotels whenever possible, opting for Couchsurfing or other types of unique lodging. My favorite in DC is the historic Henley Park Hotel. Its European architectural details, such as stained-glass windows and 119 gargoyles, make it a special place to stay. Moreover, its location is perfect for visiting Capitol Hill, Gallery Place, and Chinatown.

The Henley Park Hotel, quirky Washington DC spots

Photo by Onebroadsjourney via Trover.com

Perry’s: Drag Queen Brunch

1811 Columbia Rd. NW, 20009

As many of my friends are part of the LGBT community, I have been attending drag queen shows for years. I love them! So when I found out Washington DC spices up your brunch with a drag queen show, I was hooked. The buffet is average, so it’s the queens who steal the show. Perry’s is a great spot to have a good Sunday afternoon with friends—great rooftop for the evenings, too! Insider tip: get there by 9:30 AM if you want good seats for the show.

Perry's brunch, quirky Washington DC spots

Photo by Sarah Sampsel via Trover.com

International Spy Museum: The Real James Bonds

800 F St. NW, 20004

I’ve always been fascinated with crime and covert operations. In fact, one of my majors in college was criminology! That’s why I love the International Spy Museum: a historical compendium of the real James Bonds. It exhibits old espionage instruments, real spy stories, and other interactive media. What makes this spot even cooler is the fact that the museum is hands-on: at the entrance, you receive your own cover which, by the end of your tour, you find out whether you “blew it” or not.

International Spy Museum, quirky Washington DC spots

Photo by Steve Urquhart via Trover.com

Takorean: Mexican-Korean Fusion

Various locations

Washington DC’s best food trucks converge at Truckeroo, my friend Stephanie’s favorite foodie event. Her favorite pick? Takorean. It’s like Chipotle, where you make your own taco, burrito or bowl—but with inventive ingredients such as steak bulgogi, spiced kale, and Korean-style salsa roja. Luckily, Takorean is also open for business at Union Market and Navy Yard.

Takorean, quirky Washington DC spots

Photo by Jeannie via Trover.com

Vapiano: Peculiar Italian Resto

623-625 H Street NW, 20001

Oh dear, I’m recommending a global chain! But hear me out: Vapiano Chinatown is a cool, Italian cafeteria/lounge concept. Not only is the menu fresh and delicious, but the restaurant is also great for groups due to its comfy seating arrangements and payment system. Guests receive cards upon arrival, to be swapped at the different food stations—total which is later paid by each cardholder upon checkout. No headaches splitting the bill!

Vapiano, quirky Washington DC spots

Photo by Tina via Trover.com

Union Market: Collective Foodie Heaven

1309 5th St. NE, 20002

The historic market, revitalized and reopened September 2012, now features 40 local food artisans. I believe it is one of Washington DC’s best day trips, as visitors can enjoy daily happy hour specials and weekly special events—in addition to sampling inventive cuisine.

Orlando for Foodies Guide: Cities Less Traveled

Orlando, Florida: a city less traveled!? C’mon! This probably crossed your mind. But let’s be honest here: beyond the theme parks and golf resorts, Orlando is not a popular city break. I don’t know why though: I personally love it and used to frequent Downtown and Winter Park for concerts and dining. So, with a trip to visit friends in the area coming up next week, I wanted to showcase Orlando for foodies.

Orlando for foodies, Curry laksa

My favorite dish at Hawker’s Asian Street Fair: Curry laksa

Ceviche Tapas Bar and Restaurant

125 W. Church St., Orlando (+4 others throughout FL)

I’ve been dreaming about Jamon Serrano for weeks so cannot wait to go back to Ceviche Tapas Bar and Restaurant. Even though it’s a chain, they offer fantastic live flamenco shows and their menu is both delicious and extensive, with over 100 hot-and-cold tapas and paellas, mostly from Catalunya and Northern Spain. My favorites include the calamares rellenos (squid stuffed with veal, chorizo, Manchego cheese), champinones de Sevilla (4 types of sautéed mushrooms, sherry, goat cheese, toasted bread), and of course, the house sangria.

Luma on Park

290 South Park Ave., Winter Park

With a similar concept of shared dishes and small plates, the upscale Luma on Park offers fabulous Floridian seafood such as bluenose bass and Apalachicola oysters (depending on the season). The star here is their affordable US $35 prefix menu though, offered every Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. The 3-course special ranges from grouper brandade churros to egg cassarecce Bolognese, an 8-hour ragu. Good news to regulars: every menu changes daily.

Hawker’s Asian Street Fair

1103 Mills Ave N., Orlando

Believe it or not, my Indonesian city does not have many spots with Asian food, except for the local fair. For this reason, I want to go back to Hawker’s Asian Street Fair and have their excellent fusion picks hailing from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi, Beijing, and Bangkok. The most memorable include the Singaporean laksa, Hawker’s duck tacos, and the Southeast Asian curry.

Kappo at East End Market

3201 Corrine Dr., Orlando

Another great spot for Asian cuisine lovers, particularly pickled and raw seafood fans. Kappo at East End Market’s highlights include the scallop uni truffle, the pickled Chirashi bowl, the biggie sashimi plate, and omakase (Chef’s Choice) dinner. With only 8 seats, it is an intimate dining experience. Plan accordingly! Get there at least 30 minutes before opening time—and book minimum 3 months in advance for the omakase.

Treehouse Truck

Various locations

With the food truck trend hitting Central Florida by storm, I had to include one of Orlando’s favorites! With crazy creations such as the GC Luther (bacon cheeseburger between 2 Krispy Kreme grilled cheese sandwiches) and Mama’s PBJ (a Nutella, banana, peanut butter and jelly deep-fried sandwich), a visit to the Treehouse Truck will bring back fond memories of the State Fair. Opening hours and location are naturally erratic, especially since they also offer private catering. Make sure you check out their calendar before planning a visit.

Orlando for foodies, Treehouse Truck

GC Luther burger by treehousetruck.com

I’m currently a writer for HipMunk, participating in the #‎HipmunkCityLove Project. Proud to be promoting Orlando for foodies!

My Quebec City Couchsurfing experience: the perfect solo trip?

While I have already told you about the different attractions and things to do in this charming old town, Quebec City Couchsurfing was an experience in itself. For 4 days, I stayed in a neighborhood north of Rue Saint-Jean and Avenue Turnbull (up the hill) and it was the perfect solo trip. And then some 🙂

Château Frontenac, Quebec City Couchsurfing

me in front of Château Frontenac, Québec City

My Quebec City Couchsurfing experience: The arrival

It was a gray, chilly, rainy summer day. “Worst day ever,” I thought. After being lost, wet, and cold for over 30 minutes looking for her apartment, I wasn’t in the best of moods. Until…

FOUND it! Not only that, but as soon as the door opened, warmth overtook me. My host, a Polish translator who also spoke Spanish and French, had invited over her best friend, who happened to be an Argentinian studying languages in Québec City, so she could meet me. The welcome included plenty of Spanish discourse, hot apple cider tea, and Polish beet soup. Suddenly, everything was all right. Everything was perfect.

Quebec City Couchsurfing experience, the neighborhood

Neighborhood I was Couchsurfing at in Quebec City!

Couchsurfing, I freaking love you.

What I experienced thanks to my Quebec City Couchsurfing host

Just about an hour into my warm Quebecois welcome, Kasia’s Argentinian friend had to go back to studying and my host herself had to get back to work (from home). Which meant only one thing: whether I wanted to or not, I had to go out and explore the city on my own.

“Oh, you must be cold dear. Here, take my waterproof parka, sneakers, and scarf. Oh! And don’t forget the city maps!”

Somehow, I was leaving my host’s apartment with a new wardrobe, scores of self-guided walking tour itineraries and maps to choose from, plus a full belly. AND I got to explore a new city and have the rest of the day all to myself.

my Quebec City Couchsurfing experience, portrait

My crazy layers! I wasn’t prepared for the cold…so Couchsurfer gave me what she had (sneakers included!)

I started heading south of Rue Saint-Jean and Avenue Turnbull, down the hill. The multiple cultures I encountered within the first five minutes shocked me. Why I don’t know, but it was wonderful. From an Eastern European international grocer to a French bakery and authentic Arab restaurants — it was a quaint version of a small New York City neighborhood. With much more character! And beautiful architecture…

cabaret theater, Quebec City Couchsurfing experience

the gorgeous cabaret theater by the entrance gate of Old Québec

Vieux Quebec, Quebec City Couchsurfing review

the charming streets and architecture of Old Quebec City

Within easy walking distance was Vieux Québec. I made it back to Gare du Palais (central train station), now able to truly take it in as I wasn’t running toward a bus as to not freeze to death. From there, I ventured into the Marché du Vieux-Port (Old Port market) and couldn’t help but stuff my face with sweet macaroons. Continued down picturesque Rue Saint-PaulChâteau Frontenac, all the way down to Basse-Ville — and North America’s oldest commercial street, Rue du Petit-Champlain.

macaroons, Quebec City Couchsurfing experience

MACAROONS, O heavenly macaroons!

Quartier du Petit Champlain, Quebec City Couchsurfing review

me walking around Quartier du Petit Champlain! Impressive Château Frontenac in the background

Around 5 PM I figured I would like some company over dinner, so I headed back to my Couchsurfing host (Kasia’s), hoping she would be done with work so we could check out the Tunisian restaurant I walked by on my way to Old Québec. I did so by taking the long way though: along Terrasse Dufferin, up La Citadelle, past the Parliament Building

Terrasse Dufferin, Quebec City Couchsurfing review

Terrasse Dufferin, the beautiful boardwalk with gorgeous views of the sound Lawrence River and nearby towns

 READ MORE: Paid + Free Things to do in Québec City

Tunisian dinner — and free BYOB! — at Restaurant Carthage

No corkage fee and an incredibly sumptuous Tunisian dinner in an unreal environment — plus an unexpected price! Little place I wouldn’t have seen unless I stayed with a local in Quebec City. Got some excellent, affordable red wine from a nearby shop and had a dinner for the ages: some relaxing hours talking about the beautiful world of translation, world affairs, and even got to practice my Arabic with the friendly server 😀 why don’t we dine like this in the U.S.?!

lamb couscous, Quebec City Couchsurfing review

Tunisian lamb…couscous underneath!

restaurant Carthage, Quebec City Couchsurfing experience

the ambience and architectural details: just so so gorgeous

Another day, another adventure: French-Canadian style

I spent the next 3 days walking alternate routes around Old Québec, paying close attention to and lingering around landmarks I only took a photograph of on my first day. Favorite experiences include playing a mural scavenger hunt along Base-Ville; spending hours learning about the ambiguous Quebecois culture & history thanks to the Musée de la Civilisation‘s “People of Québec…Then and Now” permanent exhibition; and of course, eating rich, creamy duck confit poutine at Le Cochon Dingue… *sighs*

poutine, Quebec City Couchsurfing experience

I want poutine. Right NOW…

Dinner would be even richer: traditional French-Canadian fare at the historical, fancy Aux Anciens Canadiens restaurant. Better yet, go between noon and 5:45 PM in order to get an incredible three-course lunch or early dinner (including a glass of wine or beer!) for a fraction of their regular prices. Game-stuffed pies, thick seafood bisques, sweet cream brulés, and a turnip soup that could lift the spirits of the dead–perfect for the unusually-cold summer I experienced:

Aux Anciens Canadiens, Quebec City Couchsurfing review

fancy fancy!

honey turnip soup, Quebec City Couchsurfing experience

the turnip and honey soup that could lift the spirits of the dead

wild game pie, Quebec City Couchsurfing review

traditional Quebecois pie made with bison, elk, and other wild game

Maple syrup pie, Restaurant Aux Anciens Canadiens

UNREAL maple syrup pie. OMG

SO! My Quebec City Couchsurfing review equals…the perfect solo trip?

I know many solo travelers overlook Couchsurfing because they feel they have to give up most of their independence during their trip. However, if you contact the busy busy bee as your CS host, you’ll get the best of both worlds! And so my Quebec City Couchsurfing experience was a perfect mix of self-guided walking tours, multicultural chatter, and exotic dinners shared only occasionally with someone just as passionate about languages and travel as I am.

River view, Quebec City Couchsurfing review

St. Lawrence river view from Vieux Québec

What a perfect trip: can’t wait to go back!

Have you ever gone Couchsurfing? What was your experience like?

Gasparilla Invasion video and photos: 2014 PARADE

AHOY! I had already crossed Tampa Bay’s Mardi Gras, a.k.a. the Gasparilla Invasion, off my travel bucket list back in 2006. HOWEVER, I didn’t know the experience could be that much better when witnessed from a BOAT! Luckily, I had that ultimate experience last month 🙂 Debating whether you should experience it too (it is known, after all, as a festival of debauchery)? Check out my Gasparilla Invasion videos and photos below to decide yourself 😉 With the right crowd (and outfits), I promise you: it’s a lot of fun.

HOW to cross the Gasparilla Invasion off your travel bucket list

If I have convinced you, here’s how you can cross the Gasparilla invasion of your travel bucket list: You may hitch a ride with a Tampa Bay Couchsurfer who happens to own a boat, a friend, a total stranger. Just show up with some drinks, mixers and I doubt any friendly Floridian will deny you entry to their vessel 😉

Gasparilla parade photos, pirate outfits

I found some friendly pirates!

OR, if you feel more comfortable, go the ‘conventional tourist’ route and book a one of the unlimited wine/beer/soft drinks FERRY TOURS from St. Petersburg:

photos Gasparilla Invasion, FERRY TOUR

Throwing BEADS at one of the FERRY TOURS coming from St. Petersburg

Where to stay when attending the Gasparilla Invasion?

It really depends where your new found friend parks his/her boat, if you are boat hitchhiking or whether you’re taking a ferry tour. IF you are not Couchsurfing and plan to stay in Tampa, I recommend hotels close to Jackson’s Bistro (601 S Harbour Island Blvd, Tampa, FL 33602), such as the Marriott and the Westin.

You must book your room WAY in advance, as locals snatch these early. Naturally, traffic is impossible on Gasparilla parade day, so I don’t recommend any hotel outside walking distance from Harbour Island…

Gasparilla parade photos, boats

It gets CROWDED, very crowded! But from the comforts of a boat, not a big deal at all. Unless…

Getting to the Gasparilla Invasion: Parade day tips

Speaking of which, boat traffic is pretty terrible before, during, and after the Gasparilla Invasion as well. Therefore, if your friends are planning to come into Harbour Island, make sure you arrive either the night before or on parade day by 9:30 AM sharp. Also, don’t plan to leave until sunset. Otherwise, it will be a nightmare.

^^ WARNING: strong Sofia Vergara-esque accent due to all-day imbibing ^^

On the other hand, if you’re staying in St. Petersburg and taking one of the ferry tours, ask your tour company which hotel is closest to its dock. Gasparilla can get pretty crazy, so make sure your hotel is nearby!

Gasparilla parade photos, vision impaired

That shall be me — and very likely your vision after attending the Gasparilla parade!

If you have any other questions about Tampa Bay and/or attending the Gasparilla Invasion Parade, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!

For more photos, check out my Gasparilla photo album here.

Is the Gasparilla Invasion Parade on your travel bucket list?

Things to do in Quebec City: My Personal Recommendations (PHOTO essay)

This week’s Travel Bucket List Wednesday post is all about some of my personal favorites: paid and free things to do in Quebec City! I fell so deeply in love with its walled old town and basse-ville when I visited last June. Just, the vibe… unbelievably romantic, captivating, beautiful. So glad I got to cross this lovely town off my travel bucket list on my first trip to Canada!

things to do in Quebec City, Old Town panorama

Old Quebec City from a room at the Hilton by Sean Haynes, Flickr

Paid + Free Things to do in Quebec City: My Personal Recommendations!

My first Quebec City travel tip? Go online and print a map of the city. Why? Because I did my best to arrange the recommendations and landmarks on this photo essay in a way that allows you to create your own walking tours! So dot down/circle the places I have listed, connect them all with a line, and have a fun holiday 😀

**You me start at Upper Town and end at Citadel — vice versa 😉

things to do in Quebec City, Vieux-Québec

St. Lawrence River ferry, Vieux-Québec

Get lost in Upper Town & the vicinity

I Couchsurfed in Quebec City and let me tell you, it was an experience in itself. For 4 days, my base was a neighborhood north of Rue Saint-Jean and Avenue Turnbull (up the hill, bordering Upper Town). It was so multicultural and charming. People always had a smile on their faces, willing to strike a conversation. You could easily walk up to a small grocer and find everything from Polish beet soup to a complete assortment of Indian spices. Let alone the variety of charming restaurants/cafes down the hill, within easy walking distance of Vieux Québec. My type of neighborhood! 🙂

free things to do in Quebec City, Haute-Ville

Upper Town and vicinity, Québec City

Lazy morning (or afternoon) at Gare du Palais & Rue Saint-Paul

Yes, I’m actually recommending you to spend some time at Quebec City’s central train station (450 Rue de la Gare du Palais), whether you arrived or are leaving from here or not. For starters, it’s a beautiful building! I took several pictures of its architecture, inside and out. Moreover, its good cafés, people watching, and free Wi-Fi are the perfect ingredients to “waste some hours away.”

free things to do in Quebec City, Gare du Palais

Even the central train station has character in Québec City!

Continue your day walking down Rue Saint-Paul, which is nearby!

Rue Saint-Paul stroll, free things to do in Quebec City

Stroll down picturesque Rue Saint-Paul: another idea on free things to do in Quebec City! (Photo: Gilbert Bochenek, Wiki Commons)

A few hours at Musée de la Civilisation

Outstanding architecture and history of the ambiguous Quebecois heritage are always on display at Musée de la Civilisation (85 Rue Dalhousie). Marvel at its beautiful façade, the adjacent Maison Estèbe, and the Pagé-Quercy Vaulted Cellar.

Pagé-Quercy Vaulted Cellar, things to do in Quebec City

Integrated into one of the exhibition rooms, “Pagé-Quercy Vaulted Cellar is part of the 27 vaults of Place-Royale, which are some of the city’s oldest and most beautiful structures” (MCQ.org)

Speaking of exhibitions, you must NOT miss the “People of Québec…Then and Now”–the museum’s permanent run-through of over 400 years of the province’s history. It will really put things in perspective for every visitor.

Musee de la Civilisation, things to do in Quebec City

Musee de la Civilisation façade (Photo: Claude Gagnon, Wiki Commons)

Château Frontenac: inside and out

While just being inside this gorgeous mansion is absolutely amazing, their afternoon tea (offered on selected dates; call  for details) is icing on the cake. Unless you actually book a night at the hotel + buy a President Club membership…now that’s just royal. Literally.

free things to do in Quebec City, Château Frontenac

Château Frontenac in all its glory

Mural scavenger hunt, ferry ride & nightlife in historic Basse-Ville

Basse-Ville dates back to the 1608 settling of Quebec and, since there wasn’t electricity back then: did you know that many of this district’s buildings have an entire side without any doors or windows? I forget which direction they face, but it’s where the strongest, chilliest winds come from. So! In order to cover this “unattractive” side of the buildings up, many artists took the task of painting beautiful windows and murals over them. Why not take a couple of hours to do a “mural scavenger hunt,” with the player who spots the most camouflaged walls and murals winning a prize? 😉 It’s harder than you think!

free things to do in Quebec City, Basse-Ville

yup, that’s a plain flat wall – with gorgeously-detailed MURAL!

After the exhausting hunt, take a ferry ride to Levis. You don’t even have to get off on the other side: just relax and enjoy the Saint Lawrence River and Old Town views from a different perspective. Particularly impressive in the winter, by the way!

St. Lawrence River ferry, things to do in Quebec City

View of Levis and the frozen St. Lawrence from the ferry by Robbie, Flickr

Not tired yet?! Stick around and join the happening scene after 6 PM. Cafés, some bars, and even a street musician or two start to spice up the streets then!

EXTRA tip: Try to visit during the New France Festival, to watch (or join!) hordes of people dressed in 17th-18th century costumes.

Quartier Petit Champlain, North America’s oldest commercial district

Speaking of Basse-Ville, did you know that Quartier du Petit Champlain is North America’s oldest commercial district?! Incidentally, Rue du Petit-Champlain is the oldest commercial street in the continent.

While the quarter has become a little bit of a tourist trap, you may still find specialty stores selling unique Quebecois merchandise–which you might not find anywhere else.

Long walk down Terrasse Dufferin & picnic at Plains of Abraham

One of my favorite free things to do in Quebec City is a long walk down Terrasse Dufferin, the 671-meter boardwalk that starts right below Château Frontenac and extends along the St. Lawrence River:

Terrasse Dufferin, free things to do in Quebec City

The start of Terrasse Dufferin, right by Château Frontenac

Bring your own picnic basket and (weather permitting!) walk all the way down the Terrasse until you reach the Plains of Abraham. There, lay on the grass and bask in the peace & beauty of the entire city below you. Or, if feeling particularly adventurous, visit the former battlefield’s Discovery Centre + follow the tip of a Tripadvisor user: “Find the underground entrance and view the house and military items hidden behind sod bunkers. It’s a walk but well worth it.”

Plains of Abraham, free things to do in Quebec City

One of SEVERAL distinct, panoramic views from the expansive Plains of Abraham by meddygarnet, Flickr

Free tour of the Parliament Building

Looking for more free things to do in Quebec City? Take advantage of the Hôtel du Parlement English tour, where Québec’s National Assembly meets (Grande-Allee and Honore-Mercier Avenue). The guides, who are friendly and extremely responsive, will teach you about the history and functions of the provincial government. Fascinating, informative, fun!

And, while not free, I highly recommend you finish off your Parliament visit with an unforgettable meal by elected Quebecois representatives at the café, which offers an excellent Menu de Jour for CAD $8.

free things to do in Quebec City, Parliament building

Parliament building, Québec (my apologies for the shitty exposure: gloomy day!)

Changing of the Guard & Governor General’s residence at La Citadelle

Speaking of Parliament, did you know that “Canada’s monarchy operates in Quebec as the core of the province’s Westminster-style parliamentary democracy and constitution” (Wikipedia)? This takes us to another Quebec City landmark, La Citadelle (1 Côte de la Citadelle)! Great tours included in admission price, plus magnificent views of the Saint Lawrence River and Old Town thrown in.

free things to do in Quebec City, Citadel

Citadel entrance by Dennis Jarvis, Flickr

I highly recommend you start a full day around Old Quebec here, arriving early enough to join the first tour (9 AM from May to September; 10 AM from October to April). Then, stay for the Changing of the Guard at 10 (seasonal; June 24 to the first Monday of September only). A true history buff? I also recommend the tour of the Governor General’s residence at 11, which is free by the way! You will enjoy them all, pinky promise.

**Please note, the Citadel is closed December 25 and January 1

Changing of the Guard, free things to do in Quebec City

Spectacular shot of the Changing of the Guard, with Château Frontenac in the background, by Conrad Kuiper, Flickr

That’s it for my favorite things to do in Quebec City! Mind you, this list is not exclusive–I had to leave some attractions out due to space and time. Which reminds me, my next Quebecois post will be all about my favorite places to eat in Québec’s capital! 😀

Got more tips and things to do in Quebec City? Share them below!

Want more photos? Check out my Canada album on FB!

Announcement of the HIPPIE HAJJ: aka my Seattle, Portland, Vancouver trip!

ALOOO! It’s Travel Bucket List Wednesday, so what better day to officially announce my Seattle, Portland, Vancouver trip?! I’ve heard about the eclectic trio of cities quite a bit throughout my travels: as far off as Egypt, where one of my roommates happened to hail from the seat of King County.

“You would LOVE my city — especially since they have the best coffee” to “Keep Portland Weird” have always pique my interest for the Pacific Northwest. SO, when I was invited to a travel blogger wedding by Seattle, I knew I had to extend my trip beyond Washington state!

I know some of you have probably been crossed-eyed ever since I mentioned the term “Hippie Hajj” on last week’s blog post too, so here’s your answer 😉

Pacific Northwest photo: Seattle, Portland, Vancouver trip

The beautiful Pacific Northwest by Bureau of Land Management, Flickr

Seattle, Portland, Vancouver trip: aka the ultimate hippie pilgrimage

In case you don’t know much about Islam, Hajj is the sacred pilgrimage each able Muslim must make to Mecca at least once in their lifetime in order to make it to heaven. It involves elaborate preparation and several rites of passage, so speak.

Add to that that, the more I read about each city, the more my theory is cemented: a Seattle, Portland, Vancouver trip is basically the ultimate hippie pilgrimage. Very walkable, co-ops, good farmers markets, great food trucks/stands, dive bars, etc. Or perhaps we could swap the word “hippie” for simply “HIP”? Either way…

This shall be my Hippie Hajj, dammit! A full week on each city 😀

hippie Seattle, Portland, Vancouver trip photo

Shibby777, Flickr

My Seattle itinerary: lots of local events!

I spent the ENTIRE day today putting together my awesome Seattle itinerary. I’m always flexible, but I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss a thing. And so, I was in luck: LOTS of events scheduled! Excited as heck, for sure.

**VisitSeattle.org, Seattle.gov & The Stranger here UNBELIEVABLE travel planning sources — especially the latter!

Seattle free walking tours: Pike Market Experience & Seattle 101.

-Take advantage of SEVERAL free wine tastings happening every Thursday & Saturday all over the city.

-Speaking of drinking, I want to tour a couple of breweries + must visit the UNICORN on Capitol Hill. I hear it’s funky.

-Catch a band or show at one or more of these venues: Showbox, Tractor, New Moe’s, Chop Suey, Fun House (I may have misspelled one of these, my apologies!)

-Madison Park Art Walk

Splinter dance [FREE! *Tue 9/17]

Sylvia O’Stayformore’s Queen’s Brunch: every 3rd Saturday starting at 11 AM

-Seattle Italian Festival

Guest Chef Night at FareStart: $29.99 for 3-course dinner. All chefs volunteer their time and ingredients! ALL proceeds toward helping rehabilitate homeless people, teaching them skills to be able to work in the food industry. Amazing initiative

-Other foodie activities: Rainier BBQ to try cobra and rattlesnake; Little Uncle on Capitol Hill for Thai street food; try Somali food in the International District; book at least one foodie/gourmet tour of the city.

-Break bland airport food routine at Ivar’s Fish Bar for their famous clam chowder or smoked salmon chowder.

-Try at least 2 different food trucks every day (yes, really).

SO many more on my list, but must move on for this post’s sake!

Seattle, Portland, Vancouver trip: Seattle skyline

SEATTLE

My Portland itinerary: loose plans

Given that I spent way too many hours today planning my Seattle trip, I have nothing but loose ideas of what I want to do in Portland:

-Visit Voodoo Doughnuts and by a sexual-innuendo souvenir T-shirt to Mr. B

Secrets Of Portlandia Free Walking Tour

-Portland’s Old Town, Northwest (Nob Hill) & Pearl District

-Hike Wildwood Trail through Washington Park

The Grotto: National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother looks beautiful!

-Possibly one Stray Boots tour: supposed to be a mashup between an informative tour +  scavenger hunt. NICE!

Lan Sue Chinese garden: never been to China, never been to a Chinese garden. Should be a cool experience!

Hair of the Dog Brewery

-Some kind of foodie tour

-Some kind of wine tour (tentative)

-A state or national park (not sure which one yet!)

-Day trip to Oneonta Gorge (although I’m afraid it might be too cold in October!)

My Vancouver itinerary: (sort of) no clue yet! HELP MEEE

The regular “to do” lists are making me kind of yawwwn… I want something quirky! Got any Vancouver recommendations?! For now, this is all I got on my list:

-Forbidden Vancouver tours: look quirky, fun enough

-Some kind of food tour

-Some kind of pub crawl

-A state or national park (not sure which one yet!). MUST be reachable with public transportation btw, as I don’t have a drivers license… Don’t ask! 😛

narrowest building in the world, Vancouver

Oh, and visit the Guinness Record Holding narrowest building in the world in Chinatown, Vancouver! (Leeann Cafferata, Flickr)

Have you taken a Seattle, Portland, Vancouver trip? Write your tips below!

UPDATE: due to an unforeseen emergency, I had to cancel my #HippieHajj trip…but don’t worry, we will make it happen soon!

My Toronto Couchsurfing review: opera singers, Latvians, PARTY

As I planned the Hippie Hajj trip I’m taking next month (more on that lata!), I realized something. While I have sung on rooftops about my love for Couchsurfing, I haven’t shared that many details about my individual stays. And so on this Travel Tuesday I decided to share my Toronto Couchsurfing review so you read firsthand of another amazing, unexpected experience!

messages, Toronto Couchsurfing review

Messages left by other couchsurfers on my host’s wall

Toronto Couchsurfing review, Act I: The Layover

Call me weird, but I absolutely ADORE those long, awkward layovers. Why? I have plenty of time to get out to the city and explore it in a whim! SO, when I had one of those overnight layovers on my way to Montréal, I was excited to contact Toronto Couchsurfing host Art to have some fun 😀

First off, he picked me up at the airport. How sweet is that? Second, because his roommate was away for the weekend, I got to have my own big bed and bedroom. Yay! Happens to me more often than not when Couchsurfing and I absolutely love it.

my host, Toronto Couchsurfing review

My host Art and me on his balcony, the morning of my flight (and BARELY any sleep)!

In the few short hours I got in that big city, he showed me all around Little Italy, we ate at some amazing halal place, and then…

LATVIAN BAR!

OMG, that was incredibly fun. It felt like I was in the middle of Eastern Europe, in a warm toasty basement with long-lost friends. Don’t ask me for the name of the bar…*hides* I forgot! Sorry! One of the few things I remember is that we started drinking a lot of vodka, a lot of artisan beers, and between Latvian, Russian, Spanish, and Spanglish, we all kind of understood each other. We were meant to go salsa dancing afterward, but with bars closing at 2 AM around there (BOO!), we just went back to his place.

Good, because I would only have 3 hours of sleep before going back to the airport 😀

[no, he never tried to make a move on me. He was respectful. It was great.]

my couch, Toronto Couchsurfing review

what my “couch” looked like while Couchsurfing Toronto!

Toronto Couchsurfing review, Act II: The Opera Singers

“No f**ing way.” I was definitely going to miss this one. After several people misled me around the massive Montréal bus station, somehow I made the Toronto bus by the skin of my teeth. Outside, it was about to drive away, but someone was kind enough to stop it. And to offer me a rock star seat with a table and all:

“Feel free to sit here!” or something like that he said. I was partly deaf from the hasty jaunt, my apologies. Anyway, after introducing ourselves, I found out Mr. Jonathan happened to be an opera singer, on his way back to Toronto to record his very first album with the CBC. Friggin’ sweet.

After he found out I was a couchsurfer who wouldn’t meet her couchsurfer host for another couple of hours, he offered lunch and a place to stay. Yup, that was my second Toronto Couchsurfing experience on the same trip! Out of the blue, when barely making a bus 🙂

Toronto Couchsurfing review, Annex neighborhood

My Toronto digs for the first few days, in the affluent Annex neighborhood

welcome champagne, Couchsurfing Toronto

Yes, I even got a welcome raspberry champagne glass from my Couchsurfing host. Take THAT, Four Seasons

And it got even BETTER: his other friends were just as fun, and they showed me several different neighborhoods around the Annex. I even got to meet his opera singing uncle, who had a SWEET place in downtown Toronto and bake some traditional Italian recipes for us (all while drinking great wine, of course):

downtown Toronto Couchsurfing review

Downtown Toronto digs

The rest of my days varied between scrumptious brunches and gay bar hopping. One at which, by the way, on a Thursday night I won the dancing contest (and a free shot. Haha).

brunch, Toronto Couchsurfing review

Amazing brunch place in Toronto! Forgot the name, we were partying the night before…

OH! And on my last day, when I was supposed to check into my hostel and go to TBEX ’13? Jonathan allowed me to accompany him to one of his opera rehearsals before recording his album. I got to go inside the Conservatory of Music (I think that was the name?) and watch his one-on-one. It was amazing! He wasn’t happy with any of the clips I recorded, so I’m sorry about that 😉

opera rehearsal, Toronto Couchsurfing preview

my Couchsurfing host Jonathan, on his way to his opera rehearsal!

curry, Toronto Couchsurfing review

Homemade Thai curry lunch. It was AMAZINGLY tasty

In conclusion: STAY with couchsurfers in Toronto!

I’m sure I wouldn’t have found 97.9% of the places I experienced in Toronto if it weren’t for my Couchsurfing hosts. Sorry my stories were not that full of details… I guess when you’re having so much fun, you forget to take notes/many photos!? (This is horrible to say as a blogger, but that was the DETOX trip…!)

Toronto Couchsurfing review, goodbye note

“Thanks for a spectacular night in Toronto! I will never forget my first trip to Canada”

Have you also had great Couchsurfing experiences? Share them with us!

Check out my other Canada travel photos on Facebook, by the way ;D

A Sensual French-Canadian Encounter (photos)

After a light shove, the gooey, salty white chunks rolled over the crispy bed—just as thick, spicy fluid cascaded down the deep pockets like honey on a stack of hot cakes. Excited, I finally took a mouthful… and, as expected, the concoction was even more explosive inside me. I had to know more about him…

Frontenac Château poutine, Québec City

View of Frontenac Château, one time I was waiting for him…

old Québec city, poutine at Le Cochon Dingue

This, however, is the street of our favorite encounter…

…so today, I’m exploring poutine history and its different flavors! 😀

The origins

How did this sensual French-Canadian creation came to be? That was probably (one of) the first question(s) that came to mind when I lost my poutine virginity in Montréal in June. And while I had a feeling that it’s background wouldn’t be as exciting as our first encounter, it’s controversial nonetheless.

All accounts point to the late 1950s in rural Québec, Canada. It can’t be decided, however, whether its birthplace was the town of Drummondville, Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Victoriaville or even Warwick. According to the CBC though, the most-often-cited source is the latter, with its inventor being Fernand Lachance… Or the customer the asked for the special french fries? It went something like this:

Customer: I’ll have some cheese curds with those fries, please.

Chef Lachance: une maudite poutine! [a damn mess!]

Either way, thanks to BOTH! Oh, and to the guy (or girl) that had the brilliant idea to add the gravy in order to keep the fries warmer, longer.

La Banquise Montréal original

SEXY

Poutine flavors: infinite?

The possibilities with poutine are endless: any shredded meat, vegetable or cheese as topping is fair game. Just please, never forget the thick brown gravy, the salty cheese curds or the crispy, sweet fries.

Below are some of the poutine concoctions I stumbled upon with during my time in Montréal, Québec City, and Toronto:

La Banquise, Montréal menu

CLICK TO ENLARGE: many varieties at the infamous La Banquise, Montréal.

Original Montréal Poutinerie

Original variety at Montréal Poutinerie

vegetarian poutine, Montréal

Vegetarian poutine, made with the vegetable-based gravy (ohbernadine, Flickr)

La Fumee poutine

All the poutines at Le Chic Shack (Old Québec City) are made with quite chunky, yet crispy “wedge” fries — a bold twist from original varieties (photo: TripAdvisor.ca)

Double pork poutine from Smoke's Poutinerie, Toronto

Smoked bacon, chipotle pulled pork topping original poutine and gravy (Smoke’s Poutinerie, Toronto)

My favorite poutine

I gained about 10 pounds from my week in Québec—all from eating a different type of poutine every day. But there’s this special one… One that I still dream about every night. One that’s making me consider booking a ticket from the warmth of Puerto Rico to the bitter cold of Québec just so I can have it again this Christmas holiday…

Le Cochon Dingue food

Duck confit variety HECK YEAH

That poutine… That poutine is what inspired the first paragraph of this blog post. I, however, didn’t describe the shredded duck confit—as it smoothly slid into my mouth, between my teeth—because that would have probably grossed some of you out.

duck confit poutinerie, Vieux Québec

*melts in your mouth*

Just look at that. Even without the duck, it was the best poutine I’ve ever had (my 10 pounds worth of it!), hands-down. The big, perfectly salty cheese curds. The crispy, golden-sweet fries. The thick homemade gravy, mixed with the house’s spicy BBQ sauce. And yes, it even had capers.

I miss him. I MISS HIM SO MUCH. And it can only be found at Le Cochon Dingue, Vieux Québec.

Old Québec City poutinerie

YES. Please.

Damn, I really do love poutine…

(I did pay for that duck confit poutine, in case you’re wondering…) 

Got any other stories about poutine history? What’s your favorite variety?

Food & Culture in Stratford Canada: Unique Toronto Day Trip

Looking for a unique Toronto day trip? Look no further than Stratford Canada! On my second blogiversary, I will introduce you to this food and culture little gem, centered on responsible tourism. Best of all? It will only set you back about 20 CAD round-trip to get there from El Toro during festival season. Definitely worth a detour!

I was invited to Stratford Canada as part of a TBEX FAM tour (sponsored familiarization day trip from Toronto). However, all descriptions and recommendations about this foodie’s paradise are my honest opinion: I was seriously impressed!

Stratford Ontario, unique Toronto day trip

Welcome to the charming little town of Stratford, Ontario, Canada!

Stratford Canada: The Heritage

Stratford may only be known as Justin Bieber’s hometown—but it’s so much more than that.

Settled by Europeans since 1828, the town was born as a railway junction in 1856. Then, almost a 100 years later, the seat of Perth County unexpectedly morphed into a world-renowned cultural hub with the debut of its acclaimed Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 1953.

Since then, Stratford has continued to grow as one of Canada’s food and culture centres, attracting new talent ranging from theater to the culinary arts and music. Naturally, this translates into a number of exciting festivals and events happening every year.

Stratford Shakespeare Festival, unique Toronto day trip

set of props for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Renée S. Suen, Flickr)

Stratford Canada: The Food

From tutored tastings led by local experts to self-guided trails filled with food shops, cafés, and pubs—the foodie scene in Stratford is outstanding. It’s really hard to believe how much this small town has to offer! Check out the unique programs below to see why I highly recommend this culinary getaway as a multi- day trip from Toronto 😉

Savour Stratford Tutored Tastings: on select Saturdays (October-June, prices vary), choose between Scotch & Chocolate; Monforte Artisanal Cheese Making and Tasting; Tea Pairings with Chocolate or Honey; Craft Beer & Cheese; and Tea Tasting Techniques—led and crafted by local experts; also customized by you.

Culinary Adventures (foraging) and Cooking Classes: yup, you can go to the wild and forage for mushrooms, wild weeks, fiddleheads and other vegetables in season—all while learning how to make sustainable choices—or even take a class with renowned Great Ontario chefs during your Stratford visit.

Food festivals: foodie extravaganza! So many events year-round, so little time.

unique Toronto day trip, Stratford Culinary Festival

Culinary Festival photo courtesy of VisitStratford.ca

Savour Stratford Trails: available year-round, these “self-guided treks” are sold as passes ($25 CAD +HST each) and are valid for 3 days from date of purchase.

Bacon & Ale Trail: Perth County is Ontario’s top producer of pork—so YAY for bacon! This pass lets you grab unique bacon-and-ale samples from 5 out of 13 pubs, bars, and shops sprinkled throughout the trail (map provided!). Some of my favorites include Mercer Hall’s Bacon Manhattan; Revel Caffé’s espresso bacon & egg croissant (breakfast only, 9:30-11 AM); and the bacon or essential oils & beer soap bars (yes, to shower with!) from Small-Mart General Mercantile or Treasures, respectively.

Chocolate Trail: attention, chocoholics! Pass includes 6 tickets that allow you to taste cocoa treats from 6 out of 20 shops, pubs, and restaurants on the trail. Samples include chocolate chili tea, a handmade milk chocolate theater mask, and even aged dark chocolate balsamic vinegar. Tip: you can get unlimited samples of crazy olive oil and balsamic vinegar flavors at Olive Your Favorites with just one ticket! 😉

Maple Trail: the newest of the clan will make you fall in love with Canada’s liquid gold all over again. With 12 stops to choose from, you might have to buy 2 passes so you can try them all (one pass = 6 treats) 😉 Unique delicacies include sweet potato fries with Maple Aïoli, Maple Mustard or Maple BBQ dipping sauces at Molly Bloom’s Irish Pub; Canadian whiskeys aged/distilled with maple at Mercer Hall; and a house-cured maple-smoked bacon sandwich with grainy maple mustard, roasted tomatoes, and organic greens at Canadian Grub to Go.

unique day trip from Toronto, Stratford for foodies

Mill Street Tankhouse Ale country-style pork terrine wrapped and smoked bacon sauce: delicious sample from the Bacon & Ale trail!

Stratford Canada: Best Time to Visit

While Stratford Canada is an outstanding food & culture Toronto day trip year-round, it’s best to visit during festival season (May-October). Buses and private coaches happen to be cheaper and easier to find then as well!

However, other festivals are starting to pop up throughout the year, so mark your calendars 😉 Here’s a list of some special events you can’t miss:

April-June
Preview Season: for foodies!

June
Heritage Weekend (first week)
Pork-a-palooza! (2nd or 3rd week)
Stratford’s Blues and Ribfest (3rd or 4th weekend)

August
Slow Food Pork Party

September
Stratford Garlic Festival
Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival

October-November
Farmer Dinner Series

November 2013-March 2014
Stratford Chefs School Repertoire Dinners and Chalkboard Lunches

Stratford chefs school dinners, unique Toronto day trip

“Roasted pork shoulder, brined; rubbed with cayenne, garlic powder, paprika, ketchup and other spices; then slow roasted. Topped with a barbecue sauce composed of the same aromatics as the spice rub […] sided by simple greens dressed with a maple vinaigrette.” -Stratford’s chef school creation, photo by Renée S. Suen

Stratford Canada: How to Get There

The easiest, cheapest way to get to Stratford from Toronto is via the Stratford Direct. The  state-of-the-art buses, equipped with free Wi-Fi, have 2 daily departures during the peak summer festival season and one departure between May and October. Please note though, service only available during performance days and cost $10 CAD each way. Quite a bargain!

You may also travel aboard VIA Rail (daily departures from Toronto and Windsor), by air, and by private shuttle. For more information, including festival days, please visit the Stratford Festival website.

Stratford Canada, unique Toronto day trip

Stratford Canada City Hall

Stratford Canada: My Toronto Day Trip Experience

Check out some of the travel pictures that summarize the Culture and Cuisine itinerary I experienced. It included several stops on the Maple, Chocolate, Bacon & Ale trails, in addition to a special seafood bounty and Italian dinner at the Taverna Pazzo. Take notes 😉

Stratford Canada, unique Toronto day trip for foodies

Sweet stop: drinking and refreshing Maple Manhattan cocktail at the legendary Mercer Hall. Great whiskey!

Stratford Canada, bacon & ale trail

Bacon & Ale trail stop: Country-style pork terrine wrapped in smoked bacon, served with Foster’s Inn homemade baked beans

Stratford chocolate trail, unique Toronto day trip

Part of the Chocolate trail: Chocolate and wine pairings!

Taverna Pazzo, unique day trip from Toronto

Seafood galore at Taverna Pazzo: from top left, giant scallops ceviche, fresh shrimp, mussels in delicate pesto sauce, and… I think that was roe with something else?! And this was only the SECOND-tier!

Stratford Canada food, unique Toronto day trip

The gnocchi with baccala, cream, lemon, and black pepper MELTED in your mouth. OMG

Icing on the Cake: Stratford’s Responsible Tourism

The sense of community, responsibility & accountability I witnessed in Stratford Canada was an experience in itself. Every single stop we visited as part of one of the trails or guided tastings had direct trade partnerships with other members of the community and/or were part of small cooperatives, plus had their products sourced sustainably.

For instance, Revel Caffé’s owners only buy their coffee directly from the source in Nicaragua, where they actually met the family of farmers, pickers in person in order to learn more about the process, how their organic products are grown, etc.

Another example is Canadian Grub to Go, as staff only buy bread from the neighbor baker and their pork products from Canadian farms (awesomely depicted on a huge chalkboard map inside the eatery!)

Canadian Grub to Go, unique Toronto day trip to Stratford

Chalk map, specifying where their products come from, at Canadian Grub to Go

Food Network’s Chef Chuck Hughes said it best:

“The importance of having food fairs, especially in a place like Stratford Canada, it’s so close to the farmers, so close to the producers, and so close to where were trying to get back to.”

To me, the importance is to support small towns like Stratford year-round not only because of their proximity to the producers, but also because of their exemplary responsible tourism practices.

Perth pork products, unique Toronto day trip

Passionate owners of the Perth Pork Products farm took us on a tour behind their pork, in high demand by Stratford Canada chefs

Support local: plan a unique Toronto day trip to Stratford this season!