The Sunshine(less) State

Onto the second leg of our trip, and my favourite albeit being the shortest: St-Augustine. We rented a spacious, well decorated, beautiful home on South Ponte Vedra Beach and it did not disappoint. However, what did disappoint was the weather. We all thought we were going to blow away, carried off by the wind, during a ridiculously stormy night (and subsequent stormy days). Needless to say, we didn’t feel very rested when the sun came up – and I use that expression figuratively, the state was missing its eponymous sunshine.

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We only got one sunny day and I’d be damned if I wasted it sleeping because of a cough, cold & fever combo (dad, remember this next time you think I’m a weakling). Saying you like long walks on the beach has become such a cliché, but there’s a reason it’s a predictable activity, long walks on the beach are nice, and I have no shame in loving them – by that I mean I squeezed three slow meanders into a single day.

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The few other days we had here were spent strolling around the old town; it was sleepy and so were we. For those of you who may not know, St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied European established settlement in the US of A. It was first founded by Spaniards, and the main streets by the water certainly reflect it. Well that’s enough historical information for one post, anything else you might want to know is just a speedy Wikipedia search away – don’t lie, we all get our information from Wikipedia, no matter how unreliable of a source we’re told it is.

Now onto the good stuff: the food. I only walked away from this portion of the trip with one culinary experience; that’s what happens when you’re sick and feel like your throat might burst at any second because it’s so sore (also, looking back I’m like 96% sure I had strep throat). How does one try to ignore the painful sensations in their trachea you ask? A masterly crafted cocktail can usually do the trick. Ice Plant Bar, a farm to table restaurant and bar, can be found at the outskirts of the old town in a building that dates back to 1927 and used to be – get this – an ice plant *gasp*; coincidence? I THINK NOT!

Now, if you didn’t guess it for yourself, this place takes their ice very seriously; they carve three different types daily to perfection. It’s the back bone of their cocktails, which are crafted with house-pressed juices, assorted bitters and syrups. Did I mention it’s located directly beside the St. Augustine Distillery? I mean, they literally connect. Again, definitely not a coincidence, but I’m not complaining! I opted for a vodka and grapefruit cocktail I believe was called Lady Killer. For food, I had the most delicious brie and mozzarella grilled cheese with local peach-strawberry marmalade and arugula on brioche with a side of house made kettle chips – UGH my mouth is watering just writing this, I have a serious case of the 3 o’clock munchies.

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See you later alligators! (Get it, because there are gators in Florida? That means watch your kiddos folks, so they don’t get snatched up)

P.S. I regret not ending my last post with a Tigger inspired ta ta for now (seriously dropped the ball on that one, I hope you can find it in the goodness of your hearts to forgive me).

The Sunshine State

Let me start out by excusing myself for my prolonged absence – not that I have a following who would notice said absence, but still. Anyone who has gone through their post-secondary studies can attest that it is extremely time and energy consuming. Add work, family, friends and a new found obsession with Gilmore Girls and their simply aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish what I set out to do. Seeing as it’s been a couple months since I went on my last trip, and the details of it are starting to fade, I figured a post on it was long overdue. Now that that’s out of the way…

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When I think of Florida I don’t think of it as a culinary destination (although I have read good things about the restaurant scene in Miami, not that I’ve experienced it for myself). The first things that spring to mind are discount memorabilia shops, chain restaurants, and hotels lining large highways filled with cars. A close second, is the much more ~magical~ Disney World Theme Parks, where all your dreams are said to come true. Afterwards, my mind wanders to their miles and miles of beaches. On my last trip to the sunshine state I experienced all of the above.

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Part 1: Disney World

Wanting to come back from our trip less tired than we were starting out, we made the executive decision to only visit three of the four Disney theme parks. Our first park was Hollywood Studios. We strategically chose to go to Hollywood Studios first to see The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, and let me tell you, a spectacle is what we got. The Osborne’s collection of Christmas lights became so large that the crowds it drew in garnered attention from authorities because of the local residents’ traffic complaints. When the word spread that his tradition would come to an end Disney offered Residential Street at Hollywood Studios as its new home. Over 5 million Christmas lights dance to holiday favourites every 10 minutes or so making it a feast for the senses. We probably spent close to an hour wandering around hunting for hidden Mickey’s, singing and dancing along, and gazing in awe. Unfortunately, this past holiday season was the last installment of the show because of upcoming construction. I wonder what will happen to the collection of lights… Hopefully they won’t end up sitting in a storage unit somewhere in Kissimmee and will get put to good use elsewhere.

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Of course we also saw the usual shows, Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular, Lights Motors Actions and Beauty and the Beast. We’re not much for rides though and conveniently skipped over Aerosmith’s rocking roller coaster and Hollywood Tower of Terror, opting instead to wait in line for Muppets 3D. Christmas is an incredibly busy time of year for Disney (although I’m sure its busy all year round) so we didn’t really get a say in where we would be dining. We ended up at Mama Melrose, an Italian American restaurant. The food was satisfying and gave us the chance to sit in an air conditioned, relatively quiet room, and for that we couldn’t complain. I’m a pasta fiend myself and went for a pappardelle cream dish with spinach and butternut squash drizzled in truffle oil.

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Next up was Magic Kingdom. Let’s be real, everyone loves Magic Kingdom, my family and myself included. We thought it would be a great place to spend New Year’s Eve; apparently so did every other tourist within a 50 kilometre range of Orlando. Since it wasn’t our first time at the theme park we already had an idea of what was worth waiting for, and what could be skipped. castle

This lead to the discovery of smaller unpopular rides with minimal waiting times, which we did not complain about. We did, however, complain about waiting for over two hours in line for the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train Ride. Who doesn’t love standing up for that long after walking around all day? I would be lying if I said it wasn’t totally worth the wait though. It also made for a prime twilight (or would it be considered dusk? I can never keep the two straight) hour location.

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One thing we couldn’t avoid was the madness of everyone’s desire to consume food; everyone has to eat. We somehow managed to get a last minute seating at the Plaza Restaurant. Pro tip: don’t get the chicken salad, unless you are a lover of iceberg lettuce (ew, who would be) and large dollops of blue cheese, you’ll just end up staring enviously at your family members who (although you wouldn’t admit it to their faces) made the wiser decision of getting burgers and fries.

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The real highlight of the day came at midnight. Instead of their regular, measly, firework display (sarcasm doesn’t translate very well over the internet, so if you were wondering, yes that was me being sarcastic), Disney opted for a spectacular 360 degrees firework display. They certainly did not disappoint. BUT, don’t expect to get out of the park within a reasonable delay, be prepared to be stuck for hours. Looking back it probably would have been worth going on a ride or two before heading out to avoid the crowds, oh well you live and you learn right?

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To ring in the New Year we went for Brunch at Boma. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but after getting back to our house around 2:30 in the morning we weren’t pleased with the notion of getting dressed, let alone getting out of bed. Buffet breakfasts are extremely overwhelming; so many decisions to make, so little room in my stomach for everything I want to try. Now, I’ve never raved over eggs before, but the scrambled eggs with crumbled goat cheese and spinach may have very well been the best eggs I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. Also, if you’re there, do yourself a favour and save room for a biscuit or two, they were to die for; just try not to think of all the butter you’re subjecting your system to.

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Last but not least, Epcot. Don’t fret, I’ll keep it brief, especially since no pictures were taken this day with my dslr camera. The clouds looming above threatened rain all day, and my neck was sore from the camera’s weight on previous days. Let’s get to the good stuff first, Tutto Italia. No matter where we are in the world it’s inevitable, we will find ourselves eating at an Italian restaurant, we’re drawn to them, we sniff them out, what can I say? There’s nothing more comforting than Italian food, and Epcot offers an authentic Italian food experience. The star of the night was the Tiramisu; I must stress, do not get one to split, you will regret it after the first bite and will immediately wish you could have it all to yourself.  Don’t pretend you’re too full, we all know there’s a separate compartment in our stomachs dedicated to desert. When it comes to the rides at Epcot, I’m not particularly fond of them; I much rather walk around the pavilions, catch the shows or demonstrations and browse each country’s shop.

Eataly – Part 3: Florence

Last, but certainly not least, on our agenda was the city of Florence. We stayed in an apartment that looked right out onto Piazza della Signoria; quite the change from being isolated in a small village in the country side. We were thrilled by our location choice, walking around to the sites would be a breeze! However, we weren’t so thrilled by the hourly tolls coming from the clock tower that kept us up all night, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too now can you?

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We hit up the usual sights: the Duomo, il Ponte Vecchio,  Michelangelo’s famous sculpture Davide, Piazzale Michelangelo, but we also made sure to spend time strolling the streets and taking in the atmosphere stumbling across places as we went.

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If you can handle walking up flights and flights of stairs to make it to the top of the Duomo, you will be rewarded with a lovely view of the city. On top of that, you get the opportunity to see the frescos painted on the dome up close and personal.  And just think, with all the extra calories you burn you can go for two scoops of gelato instead of just one without any regret. For another great view of Florence, make your way to Piazzale Michelangelo. Since it’s outside the walls you get a more comprehensive Birdseye view of it all. Keep in mind that it is a nice little hike and quite a bit busier since there are no admission fees. With an influx of tourists this also means that vendors have set up souvenir tents; don’t expect a peaceful lookout point.

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With the weather proving to be much warmer, and the sun much stronger, I embarked on a mission to eat a Gelato a day. I am proud to say that I accomplished this goal and then some. On our way to and from points of interest in the city we found two great gelaterias. The first, Gelateria Vivaldi, was located across the Arno River. This one felt more like a cafe, which also happened to offer rich gelatos, often with a twist on classic flavour combinations. It’s a great place to take a break from walking around town; there’s some cushiony sofas and arm chairs in the back that are begging to be sat in. The other, Le Botteghe di Leonardo, was on a quiet side street near the Galleria dell’Accademia. I’m a fan of food that looks pretty, and this gelato definitely met the mark with a branded wafer wedged neatly into my cone.

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Another spot we had read about in Florence was Caffè Gilli.  We hadn’t planned on going but when we stumbled upon it one afternoon we were drawn in by their displays.  I felt like I had indulged enough for one day and stuck with a tea.  Now this was no ordinary tea, they were especially crafted Firenze themed teas.  I opted for Appuntamento sul Ponte Vecchio, a green tea blend with notes of strawberry.  On our way to dinner later that evening, as luck would have it, we happened upon the tea shop that produced these very teas! They carried a full line of different Firenze teas, an astrological symbol line, and many many more. Naturally we picked up a few to bring back with us.

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On our very last night in Italy we were determined to eat a delicious meal to end things on a high note. After some online research we settled on Il Pizzaioulo, which translates roughly to pizza maker. It was supposedly the best Pizza in Florence, and we wanted to put it to the test. I was placed in charge of getting us there since I was the most adamant about going. After a few wrong turns, just as we were about to call it quits, we found the dimly lit practically deserted street it was on. Everyone turned to me with an expression on their face that said: where are we, and why did you bring us here? Little did they know that they would be thanking me later. When we got to the restaurant it was the opposite of deserted. We were fortunate to get a seat in the crowded eatery amid the locals. Our table was directly beside the pizza makers’ station; the mirror ceiling gave us an optimal vantage point for seeing them prepare our food. I went for my usual choice, a mushroom pizza, and the restaurant lived up to its rave reviews. It was hands down the best pizza of the trip. I savoured every last bite, wishing I could find pizza like this back at home.

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With heavy hearts we packed up our suitcases and said our farewells to the country that would forever have our hearts.  We knew it wasn’t a permanent goodbye, we would be back, it was only a matter of when.

Arrivederci!

Eataly – Part 2.5: Cinque Terre

On our way to Florence we took a pit-stop, my parents might argue that it was an unnecessary detour, to the coast. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the famous Cinque Terre. As a compromise we agreed to only visit the one nearest to our hotel in Lerici, Riomaggiore.

We checked into the hotel, dropped off our suitcases and headed right back out again. The drive was not an easy one; the roads were small and hugged the sides of cliffs. When you looked outward all you could see was the sea, which was beautiful, but mildly terrifying to some. I felt as though I was in a Studio Ghibli movie, Kiki’s Delivery Service to be more precise.

My dad was very relieved to park the car and actually be able to enjoy the scenery. There were rows of grapes for wine growing on different mountainous plots, which I had never seen before, and stairs that seemed to go on and on forever leading to town. We slowly made our way down step by step, already thinking of the daunting task of heading back up once we were done our visit.

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Cinque Terre is said to be the birth place of pesto, and I was looking forward to having a dish with it as the star, but I had no such luck. When we finally made it to the main stretch it was completely deserted. There were no tourists, no locals, no anything. The stores and restaurants were closed except for one bar. It was a complete ghost town. The lack of a crowd did make the views picturesque, and provided us with ideal photo ops BUT it would have been nice if it had been a bit livelier.

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After enjoying the scenery for a little while longer we decided we had put walking back up to the car off long enough. We took a little break at the hotel before visiting Lerici. We had started getting hungry around 6:00 and decided that that was an appropriate time to start hunting for somewhere to eat. It proved to be surprisingly difficult. We did our rounds of the restaurants, and most of them didn’t seem to be open. We couldn’t tell if we were just early, or if they were closed for the off season. By the time 7 rolled around we decided on a ristorante in the main square and ordered pizza. I discovered on this trip that there is no such thing as too much Italian pizza; it’s impossible to get tired of it.

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Worn-out from the day (and a little sore) we turned in early. The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel, which offered a massive and delicious selection of everything from eggs, to baked goods, yogurts, freshly squeezed juices, fruits, croissants, cheeses, and cured meats.

We took one last peek at the town down below and then we’re off once again.

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Eataly – Part 2: Emilia Romagna

We pilled our luggage, camera bags, and ourselves into the car and relied on our cartographic skills to get ourselves to the next leg of our trip.  Google maps might have played a helping hand too.

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I’m always amazed at how close everything is in Europe.  After a few short hours we had arrived at Castell’Arquato; our home for the next four days.  We stayed at Relais du Château – Casa Illica, a beautiful boutique hotel with only a couple rooms (sounds pretty posh don’t it?) perched atop the town – which offered stunning views of the rooftops below at breakfast.  The owner, a kind lady from France, made fresh croissants, bread and chocolatines for us every morning.  Our rooms were near the oven where they baked; we awakened with wafts of the smell of fresh baked goods, not a bad way to start the day if I do say so myself.  The daily spread also included yogurts, jams, and a HUGE block of Grana Padano – or maybe it was Parmigiano Reggiano, I’m slightly ashamed to say that I can’t tell the difference between the two… either way parmesan of some shape or form is essential at every meal, obvs.  To wash it all down she would serve us a classic cappuccino; no Italian breakfast would be complete without some form of caffè.

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Over our time in this area it felt as though we were perpetually eating (which I was more than okay with it). Our daily activities consisted of going from our hotel, to a restaurant for lunch, to a small town (where we would probably stop in at a caffè), to another restaurant for supper, and then to a gelateria for a scoop (or two) of gelato.  I forgot what hunger felt like.  The best food really is found in the smallest towns, and we fully took advantage of that.  There’s no such thing as a tourist menu, everything is made from scratch, and the prices can’t be beat.

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Our family comes from this region so we met up with various zii, zie, cugini and a whole mess of other people whom I vaguely remember from when I was a child.  Some, if not most, of the best food of the trip was consumed on this leg of the vacation; unfortunately I (stupidly) didn’t think to document it.  I was too preoccupied with savoring the meals in front of me.

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While in the region, we made our way to another small village by the name of Vigoleno.  Although it was nearby the drive took quite some time because of the twists and turns; not the ideal situation for a stuffed backseat passenger prone to motion sickness.  The cobble stone streets were dimly lit and the tourists were scarce.  We stopped in a small shop to purchase some parmigiano, and I picked up two bottles of wine; the best kind of souvenirs.  On a side note, can anyone explain why wine can be found for cheaper than water in European cities???

DSC_0305And so, with heavy hearts, and very full stomachs, we said goodbye to Castell’Arquato and set our sights on one of Italy’s main cultural hubs: Florence.

Eataly – Part 1: The Veneto

Italian food is hands down the best food there is. Being a second generation Italian, my opinion is probably biased, but I stand by that statement. Pasta, lasagna, ravioli, cannelloni, gnudi, gnocchi, annelini, pizza, risotto, tiramisu, gelato; the list could go on and on forever. Now Italian food in Italy is on a whole other level. You could follow a recipe word for word and not achieve the same results as if it were made in Italy. There must be something in the water – or maybe they sprinkle their crops and animals with magical fairy dust, who knows – because I’m telling you, the ingredients there are just inherently different. And by different I mean better.
I was lucky enough to spend about two weeks in Italy over my winter break last year; it proved to be the tastiest fourteen days of my life. I landed in Venice with my appetite in tow. First up was Café Florian, Europe’s oldest Café, located in St. Marks Square. Be prepared to pay a hefty price for an afternoon snack in one of their ornamentally decorated sitting rooms. I got a green tea with some macaroons, not a particularly Italian choice, but a delicious and semi affordable one. The overall experience is worthwhile if you don’t mind dishing out the extra euros – otherwise get an espresso at the bar (drinks are cheaper if you take them standing up), and have a quick peak around.

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If you’re ever in the area I would highly recommend taking a vaporetto – a water bus – to the surrounding islands. Murano, known for their glass blowing, is a shorter trip, but Burano, famous for their lace, was my favourite. Traditionally, the town’s primary industry was fishing, but today tourism plays a larger role in their economic wellbeing. Brightly painted houses, with distinct hues, adorn the small canals, and it is very easy to enjoy a stroll since there isn’t much of a crowd. By talking to a shop owner we later found out the history behind the colouring of the homes – each colour was associated to a particular family, making it easier for fisherman, after a long journey (or perhaps even a rowdy night) to identify their house upon their return.

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Not knowing when we would find ourselves in Northeastern Italy again, we decided to spend a day in the nearby city of Verona. Verona is probably best known as the location that the fictional tragic story of two star crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, took place. I had only ever seen the city in that Hollywood movie, Letters to Juliet, and imagined it to be as peaceful and quiet as it had been portrayed on screen. It was far from it. Hordes of tourist flocked to the Casa di Giulitta, to leave love letters for Juliet, or to see her famous balcony. The main streets and main squares were equally as busy so we tucked into a small coffee shop on a side street, both to warm up and to get a restaurant recommendation for lunch. The barista gave us instructions on how to get to her favourite pizzeria, and after a quick cappuccino we were off. The restaurant was tucked away on a dead end street, which is why we were so surprised at how modern the interior décor was. The pizza filled our hungry stomachs, giving us the energy to further explore the city. We went to the outskirts of town to see the Ponte Scaligero, part of the old defense system of Castelvecchio, a castle which now holds art galleries. Before heading back to the train station we stopped in to see the enormous Roman Arena. It was in such good condition; if only we had come into town on a day where a performance was taking place in the amphitheater – now that would have been a show to remember!

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Another main point of interest is Piazza San Marco. People will try to sell you bird feed for the pigeons loitering around, don’t bother buying it, just bring some bread products you don’t mind sharing with the birds and they will flock (in a somewhat alarming manner) towards you. Be forewarned: they are not shy. In the piazza you will find the Basilica di San Marco. You may need to wait in line to get in but it is worth the wait; once you do you will be forced to check your bag since backpacks are not allowed. Keep in mind that the bag check is not directly at the basilica’s entrance so make sure to drop your bag off before getting in the queue. What I found most impressive about this Basilica was the mosaic that decorated the massive dome. For a memorable view of Venice, take the small elevator up the neighbouring Campanile.

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After a handful of days spent in Venice, we made our way back to the airport, picked up a rental car, and headed towards our next destination…
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Wine Not: My Trip to Prince Edward County

Few things are as enjoyable as food or travel, but pair the two of them together and you’ve got yourself a recipe for success. They go hand in hand seamlessly; a match made in heaven (a tad cliché, maybe, but true nonetheless). Throw some wine into the mix for good measure and you’re bound to have a really good time. Agritourism is really picking up in locales around the world, and I couldn’t be more pleased about it. I myself have never gone on a trip with the sole purpose of tasting what a region has to offer up until this past August, when I took a trip down to Prince Edward County.

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For those of you who know a bit about Ontarian geography, Prince Edward County is located about halfway between Ottawa and Toronto (near Belleville), and is home to Sandbanks National Park (confession: I couldn’t be bothered to tear myself away from food long enough to visit it). The main towns are Wellington, Bloomfield, and Picton, with the latter being the largest of the three. I genuinely have no idea how I have been able to completely overlook this region for so long. It’s a short 3 hours away from Ottawa, making it ideal for a weekend getaway, filled with eateries and artists, not to mention brimming, I REPEAT BRIMMING, with wineries of all shapes and sizes. Literally every foodie’s (*cringe* I actually hate when people use this word, so please forgive me) culinary dream. They even have a ‘Taste Trail‘ decidated to the bounty of the county, I mean how can this sound unappealing to anyone? I managed to fit a lot of wineries and restaurants in on my short stay, here are the places that made my list of must sees.DSC_0136

DSC_0175Because there are so many wineries, it’s hard to figure out where to start. When I heard that Norman Hardie Winery and Vineyard served pizza made in a wood burning oven, it was a no brainer. I devoured my pizza within minutes but savoured every bite; I went for the funghi, oyster mushrooms, garlic, fior di latte and brie. Anyone who is celiac (bless your souls, I don’t know how anyone could handle being kept away from the deliciousness that is gluten) needn’t worry! They also offer gluten-free pizza, which my mom swears was really tasty, and a mother’s word should always be trusted. We didn’t spend much time in the tasting room though, trying first a Chardonnay, then a Calcaire, which we preferred and bought.

Another highlight was going to The Grange. Having approximately zero knowledge of wine didn’t stop me from my mission to try all the ones they had to offer. Spoiler alert: I succeeded. Out of the four wineries we visited this one was by far my favourite. The staff on hand was helpful, knowledgeable and even showed us the wine cellar. By carefully picking and choosing who would try which wines, and later trading glasses, we managed to taste every wine on their sampling list. Now, I’m no sommelier, but damn those were some good fermented grapes. This visit resulted in the biggest haul of them all; we left with six bottles of wines.

Processed with VSCOcam with m3 presetDSC_0091Okay back to the food. If you’ve never heard of the Drake hotel do yourself a favour and look it up. It is everything young contemporary urban folk could want, and so much more. It has put a bit of a spell on me, but I can’t help it, it’s just so dang hip. They recently opened up the Drake Devonshire Inn in Wellington, so naturally I had to stop for lunch. I ordered a pickerel dish with a broad bean zucchini stew; it did not disappoint. On a side note, why is it that I can’t find pickerel at a fish monger in Ottawa, but I can buy organic Scottish salmon??Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

DSC_0122DSC_0158Our very last stop before hitting the road was The Hubb at Angeline’s. The decor was stylish and on the eclectic vintage inspired side, the room was small, and the food was to die for. I had a soy and honey smoked brisket burger, sandwiched between a house made milk bun and topped with coleslaw (which kind of weirded me out but actually worked really well). Unfortunately I don’t have a picture for you as I just couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into it.

Best of the Rest:

-Slicker’s Ice Cream in Bloomfield: they’re known for their campfire ice cream, but I went for an orange and raspberry one the first night, and opted for a mixed berry one the second – they were both delicious. While you’re at it, take a short stroll through the town, it’s short but sweet.

-Dead People’s Stuff Antiques in Bloomfield: I mean, with a name like that how can you not stop in?

-The Cider Company: go for the tasty variety of ciders, the original was my favourite, and stay for the beautiful view.

-Main street Picton: plenty of little shops and bakeries, the Regent theatre, where they occasionally play films and other days have live shows, concerts, you name it!

This was my first visit to the county, but it certainly won’t be my last! I already have my eye on a few restaurants and wineries that I couldn’t squeeze in this time around, but won’t be missing the next. Whoever had the idea of pairing travel with food was an actual genius and deserves a high five.

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