Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Tasting and Touring Through Alexandria

The Alexandria Tourism Board had arranged for me to have a private tour of this historic area. Whitney met me at the Visitors Center in the morning for my walking exploration.

We started walking by Market Square and continued through the area’s highlights, talking about the history and the founding fathers.  Since it’s also the location of the longest running continuous farmer’s market in the nation, Whitney explained how the area had evolved from a seaport to a functioning town.

I was fascinated with the cobblestone street of Sea Captains Row, once inhabited by a large family (20 children – all girls!!) that spread from one house to raising their own families in the others.  I was also surprised to see how tiny the house owned by George and Martha Washington was, though Whitney explained that they sent extra guests there most of the time while they stayed at Mount Vernon.

We walked by the headquarters of the Alexandria News Gazette, the longest running daily newspaper in the country. Some other landmarks have also stayed put, such as Gadsby’s Tavern, and others that have remained as more of a museum than a working business, like The Apothecary where our first president filled his prescriptions.

I thanked Whitney for a wonderful tour and headed to Restaurant Eve. It was just beautiful and I especially loved the long, comfortable, couch-like table settings. I was there to meet Todd Thrasher, partner in the Eat Good Food Group, which has various establishments all over Alexandria, Virginia. I settled in for a great discussion about his restaurants and views on mixology (full story to come on my interview).

Lunch was at Vermillion, the same restaurant where President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle celebrated Valentine’s Day this year.  I met with the Megan, the restaurant’s PR rep, and started with one of their great cocktails, a Fennel Fizz Classic (house made fennel, pomegranate, fennel-infused simple syrup and sparkling wine).

I started the meal with the Carrot Ginger Soup and then had a beet salad, made with local beet varieties, feta, dill, pine nuts and Greek yogurt. Both courses were fantastic.  The Garganelli Pasta was my main course and it was quite flavorful, with roasted mushroom, mascarpone cream and garlic bread crumbs.  

The pastry chef here is as inventive as the chef. I have never seen (or tasted) anything like the Cookies & Confections Plate at Vermillion. It was like a trip back to all the childhood favorites, with his version of a Hostess cupcake, Snickers, oatmeal cream pie and a pudding pop – with mint chip ice cream!

I had a short break before my friend and colleague Julia Cooney picked me up to go to Grape & Bean. This wine and coffee bar has a huge selection, but we decided to just relax and enjoy an aperitif we knew we enjoyed, namely the2011 Vietti Moscato d’Asiti from Piedmont, Italy.

We went to dinner at Virtue Feed & Grain, a property of Todd Thrasher’s restaurant group.  The drinks – including some beer cocktails – were rather eclectic and we sipped them while we tasted the wonderful Potatoes Stuffed with Short Ribs and an order of Baba Ganoush.

For a main course we shared the Chicken Pot Pie and the Skaggers Pie, both of which were not quite what we expected, but the restaurant certainly made it up to us as they filled our table with a selection of the restaurant’s best desserts. The chocolate fudge cake was one of the best I’ve ever had, but the bread pudding was spectacular, as was the chocolate crème brulee.

After dinner we headed to the PX Speakeasy. It was a small place up a flight of stairs and I loved the old fashioned, cozy décor. The drinks, however, were modern and well-crafted, with unique names. We tried and liked two: I Promise This Cocktail Will Make Your Belly Feel Better with Menta Branca, Cruzan Black Rum and house made mint bitters; and a Norfolk Dumpling made from house made duck sauce soda, house made cherry bitters, Maccho Pisco and Don Julio Anejo Tequila.

I then enjoyed an old standard – at least I thought it was one. As a gin and tonic drinker, I was blown away by Todd Thrasher’s homemade tonic, made with lavender and a bit sweeter than most and served with ice cubes made from the tonic so it wouldn’t dilute.

It had been a very long and filling day so I was anxious to head back to the Sheraton Suites Old Towne Alexandria before the new day came and Julia and I would be off to George Washington’s Distillery at Mount Vernon.  

Friday, May 25, 2012

Visiting Virginia

When I received an assignment to write about the George Washington Distillery for Capitol File Magazine, one of the things that excited me the most about it was the chance to head back to the Washington, DC area. I decided it would be fun to combine a good foodie town with the trip and quickly settled on Alexandria.  It was a great choice.

Virginia Tourism helped me organize a trip filled with great cocktails, restaurants, and a bit of history.  I also had the bonus of being joined on some of the trip by a friend I had recently met on my press trip to St. Maarten, Julia Coney of All About the Pretty.

I arrived at the Sheraton Suites Old Town Alexandria in the early evening for my three night stay there.  I had never been there before, but I immediately knew why it had been chosen as the suite had what I needed and it was located within walking distance of most of the sites and venues I was going to.
Claire from Alexandria Tourism picked me up for dinner. I had been looking forward to this since reading about it on the itinerary. If you ever asked me what my favorite foods were, I could guarantee that they have cheese in them. Whether it’s a sprinkling of parmesan or oozing cheddar, I love cheese dishes so dinner at Cheesetique was the perfect choice for me.

Cheesetique, located in the Del Ray neighborhood, also has a large selection of one of my other favorite things – wine. I had a glass of Chilean Cuvee and Claire and I tried to narrow down what we were going to order. It seemed like an impossible task to be given a menu where absolutely everything sounded terrific and you were only going to pick a few! Finally, the waitress helped us narrow it down, though we still ordered way too much.

The Warm Chevre and Tomato Dip, served with crostinis, was a wonderful start as it wasn’t heavy. We followed that with a Pear and Gorgonzola Flatbread. That wasn’t very cheesy, but I was soon thankful for that fact.

The grilled cheeses we had ordered arrived. We had narrowed it down to the Grown-up Grilled Cheese, the Grilled Pimiento Cheese and the ABC Panini. The Grown-up was Prairie Breeze Cheddar melted on grilled sourdough. It was excellent. I couldn’t imagine a better grilled cheese sandwich. As for the Pimiento, it was made with a spicy blend of 3-year Cheddar, Dragon’s Breath and Dubliner, with pimientos. It had quite a kick and I enjoyed the unusual taste.  

The ABC Panini was quite different from the others. It was a tasty combination of red apples, peppered bacon and Comte on a dark honey wheat bread. I liked the combination of sweet and salty.

Fortunately, we had paced ourselves and only tasted a bit of everything before the macaroni and cheese course (just saying “macaroni and cheese course” makes me salivate!). The first was Mac ‘N Cheesetique, Goat Gouda, Asiago, 30-day Pecorino and truffle-infused bread crumbs. It was a perfect blend.

Our second macaroni and cheese was Cauliflower & Pancetta. I was a little hesitant when ordering it, but I’m glad the waitress convinced us as the Fontina and Parrano cheeses mixed very well with the cauliflower florets and crispy pancetta.

I had made sure to leave room for dessert and I’m glad I did because my anticipation was correct. The Cheesetique Cheesecake was creamy and delicious, topped with luscious fruit. It was the perfect ending to the evening and my start of exploring Virginia. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Spa Life Among The Boulders

I had been battling a cold and sinus infection all week. I spent lots of time in the spa at the Arizona Biltmore and Sanctuary at Camelback in steam rooms filled with eucalyptus. I was finally starting to feel a bit better at The Boulders, and I it was a good thing because I got to really enjoy one most incredible spas I have ever seen.

It’s hard to explain The Boulders to a person who has never been. Breathtaking doesn’t even begin to describe the sprawling grounds, filled with natural boulders, more types of cacti than you have ever seen, and just about anything you could need in this miniature city on the mountain.

My day began just as it should in a place like this – with sunrise yoga. I practice yoga all the time, but there’s something about a setting like this that made the class amazing. I wished I had been feeling better and could also experience the other classes offered on the fitness side in this huge Golden Door Spa.

The spa at The Boulders is 33,000 square feet and has 24 treatment rooms, the gym, a movement studio, the Labryinth (“a path to tranquility”), Watsu and a beauty salon. In addition, there are relaxation areas, a tea room, huge locker rooms, steam rooms, saunas, Japanese soaking baths, a Golden Door Café and an outdoor swimming pool with whirlpool. It’s a place you could easily stay in for a day (or even a week) in full relaxation without ever being bored – and I came close to doing that.

After my yoga class I had breakfast in the spa’s café. The menu was inviting and healthy, and I settled on some tea with an egg white omelet, filled with asparagus and goat cheese and served with tomato sauce and fruit. With it came an absolutely delicious banana nut muffin. It was still warm from the oven and turned out to be lowfat and gluten free!

My roommate and fellow writer Susan did a morning hike and we met up back at the room for a while before heading to the spa together for a meeting with Debi Bridges, the public relations rep for the resort. It was lunchtime by then and I had no problem with another meal at the Spa Café. I had a chicken & wild rice soup, spinach artichoke dip with pita and a smoothie. It couldn’t have been a more perfect lunch in a beautiful setting overlooking the mountains.

After lunch we took a tour of the property in a golf cart and I saw so many scenic trails I wished I had more time to explore, but I was anxious to get back to the spa as relaxation seemed to be the best way for me to get healthy. I went for a short swim in the outdoor pool and then got comfortable in the tea room with some apple cider tea and a book.

I had chosen a Lavender Zen Treatment and it combined everything I loved. Using lavender-scented products, I first had a scrub, followed by a warm towel wipe down. Then, hot rose quartz stones were placed around my body before I was massaged with warm oil. We finished the 90 minute treatment with me wrapped in warm towels while my feet and scalp were rubbed with oil! I would recommend visiting The Boulders for this treatment alone.

I stayed in the spa a bit more for a steam room and shower before walking back to the room for a nap. We dressed for dinner and then sat on our patio with a bottle of Jacob’s Creek Sparkling Moscato (yum) to celebrate our final night in the Phoenix area.

Dinner was at Palo Verde. The comfortable Southwestern décor was in contrast to the International menu. It was filled with small plates so we had a chance to sample quite a bit. David, or waiter, was very helpful and brought out a feast of interesting creations that were all wonderful:

Arancini Sicilian Risotto Croquettes with leeks and mushrooms;
Crispy Polenta Cake with red peppers, onions and goat cheese;
Duck Quesadilla with asatero cheese in a pineapple chipotle salsa;
Spicy Cannelloni;
and Linguini with Meatballs.

Throughout the meal, Brad, the restaurant manager, brought over some Arizona wines for me to try. (Susan was more than happy with her Frozen Mango Margaritas). I really enjoyed the Pillsbury Wild Child White Blend, a combination of chenin blanc and riesling made in the high appellations of Southwest Arizona, and the 2009 Nache Red Blend, a combination of petite syrah, Grenache and syrah which was very fruit filled, with notes of dark raspberries and blueberries.

After a decadent Bailey’s Irish Cream Chocolate cake with a rich fudge frosting, Brad brought Cameron over to talk to us a bit about Tequila Herudera, the tequila that he helped pick for The Boulders. They bought the barrel and keep going back for more as it has become the bestselling tequila in Arizona. I couldn’t disagree as it was very smooth with lots of vanilla.

We ended up closing out the restaurant for our last night of this amazing trip. Susan and I talked quite a bit about our favorite resort and it was unanimous that there wasn’t one. We loved the executive lounge and formal grounds of the Arizona Biltmore; the spacious casita and restaurant views of the Sanctuary at Camelback; and the magnificent spa (with café and pool area) at The Boulders. We also agreed that we were so glad we got to stay and enjoy all three.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Exploring Scottsdale on the way to The Boulders

It was time to leave our beautiful casita at Sanctuary at Camelback and head to The Boulders, but before we checked in there, we were going to make a stop to check out some of Scottsdale.

I had been intrigued when I read about Chef Jose Garces creating three complimentary food spaces at the new Saguaro Hotel and had arranged for my fellow writer and companion Susan and I to have lunch there.

We enjoyed walking through the Saguaro Hotel to get to Distrito. The décor was contemporary and eclectic so we seemed to constantly be stopping to look at things such as a Hello Kitty poster or an advertisement for Twinkies and Ding Dongs.  

The food venues at Saguaro Hotel included a coffee shop and a whiskey bar, featuring more brands than even I knew existed.  Distrito matched the style of the rest of the building. Even the menu was minimalistic, but it had all we really needed.

The weather was beautiful so we decided to take an outside table. There was an event going on in the square and we listened to some Indian chanting while enjoying the Red Sangria, made from red wine, tequila, blackberry brandy and simple syrup. We drank it with a tasty guacamole with cotija.

Our next course was called a quesadilla, but looked more like an empanada. It was filled with squash blossoms and was really delicious. Next, came the Tacos de Carnitos. These were a combination of pulled pork, beans and pineapple salsa.

Before a dessert platter of vanilla flan, almond cake and a mango dulce de leche (as well as some churros with chocolate sauce) we tasted the white sangria. It was a blend of white wine, tequila, apricot brandy and simple syrup and was as good as the red.

After lunch we took some time to walk around in Old Scottsdale and burn off some calories while we explored. It’s a great area with a nice cross between touristy (which I have to admit I still enjoy) and cowboy in the desert.  We left town after about an hour and took the ride up to The Boulders.

I had never been to Scottsdale, but it did remind me quite a bit of Tucson, Arizona, with a combination of open desert land and strip malls. The mountains were also spectacular. It was about 4:00 pm by the time we settled into our Boulders Casita, a studio with a small porch that looked at some of the most breathtaking parts of this resort – the cacti, mountains and, of course, boulders.

I was still battling a sinus infection so I headed to the spa for some time in the steam room. I was blown away by the size and amenities at this Golden Door Spa and couldn’t wait to see more of it in the morning.

We had a relaxing dinner in the lounge, where I just had a burger and a Bouldertini (a Bellini everywhere else). We took a shuttle to the Spotted Donkey for a Prickly Pear Margarita nightcap and then went back to the casita in preparation for a busy day exploring The Boulders before we would settle into the spa. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Spa and Casita Living at Sanctuary at Camelback

The weather was starting to warm up a bit in the Phoenix area of Arizona. Susan Campbell, a friend and fellow travel writer, and I were happy to keep the car parked while we enjoyed the scenery and learned more about the Sanctuary at Camelback.

We were supposed to go on a hike in the morning, but my cold had turned into a sinus infection and walking steady was not my strong point. Susan did take off for a while and examine the breathtaking grounds of the property. I was not at a total loss as you didn’t have to walk far at the Sanctuary at Camelback to be blown away by the views.

Breakfast was in the Elements restaurant, which is full of windows so we didn’t miss a moment of the mountains. The menu ranged from healthy, gluten-free and vegetarian, to slightly indulgent. Susan went for the eggs and bacon with an Arizona Sunrise Smoothie, while I had a decadent Brioche French Toast, with cherries, almonds and whipped mascarpone.

After breakfast she headed to the pool and I met with the spa director and operations manager to learn more about Sanctuary at Camelback and what they offer.  I was told the spa is focused more on “wellness” than “pampering,” though I found the personal attention from the moment you walk in to be one of the most pampering I’ve received (thanks again to Daphne for taking such good care of me). They are also said working with guests to plan customized experiences in advance, whether you want to train for a marathon, get in better shape, or find yourself through guided imagery and meditation.

The spa at the Sanctuary is very comforting. I spent the rest of the afternoon there, reading between the eucalyptus steam baths, Jacuzzi and a Sabai Foot treatment. Sabai is the Thai word for relax and I’m not sure that I found it overly relaxing, but my feet never felt so soft and the day had certainly been relaxing.

Susan was thrilled with her Swedish massage and we were both ready to continue the relaxation into the evening with drinks on the patio of the Jade Bar. We got a cheese platter and I had a Moscow Mule (Ultimat Vodka, house made ginger syrup and ginger beer) and she sipped her beer while the sun went down. We then walked over to the Elements restaurant, where we had the same table with a view as breakfast.

Dinner was even better than breakfast thanks to some helpful hints from our waiter, Mark. My Potato Leek Soup was very good and I continued the vegetarian evening with an excellent Carrot & Millet Ravioli, surrounded by sugar snap peas, shitake mushrooms and Yuku mint chimici. Susan had the duck, which came with forbidden rice (my first time trying this treat) and was in a boy choy black bean sauce. We also had side of roasted Brussels sprouts and Truffled Macaroni and Cheese, both of which were great.

It’s a rare night that I don’t at least sample some dessert, but even the thought of the PB Bomb (peanut butter mousse and dark chocolate ganache in a crispy Nutella base) could not make room in my stomach. We instead went back to the room and retired early. A full day at the Sanctuary at Camelback left us rested, relaxed and ready to fall into deep sleep. It was a good thing because the next day was a full one as we headed to The Boulders.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Finding Sanctuary at Camelback

It was still a bit cold and rainy in Phoenix and my cold was lingering, but I was not going to let any of this keep me down. I started the day with a little yoga and some breakfast in the Executive Lounge at the Arizona Biltmore, and lots of positive thoughts.

My friend and fellow travel writer Susan Campbell and I had planned this Arizona getaway to include three hotels. On day three, we left Arizona Biltmore and headed out to the Sanctuary at Camelback.  We made a stop first at the Homewood Phoenix Biltmore. It was a hotel we were going to also stay at, but in the end there weren’t enough nights. We toured there for a bit and found it to be even more comforting than many other Homewood properties I have stayed in.

We arrived at the Sanctuary at Camelback at about 2:30 in the afternoon and were instantly impressed. The main building was very contemporary, with lots of glass and wonderful mountain views. Our Casita also had great views from the balconies, and a cute little kitchen that was supplied with everything we could need.

I decided to head down to the spa to (literally) clear my head. The spa was on the other side of a welcoming pool. I was hoping the temperature would improve for the next day so I could use it. Daphne was one of the attendants there and she went out of her way to be accommodating. She put the eucalyptus in the steam room for me, made sure I had fresh water to drink, and came to check on me to see if there was anything else I needed.

After the spa, I changed quickly for the evening. I met with a friend (also named Susan) for cocktails at the Jade Bar, where the views of the mountains are as spectacular as the drinks. I had a Dragon’s Tonic, an interesting combination of Bombay Sapphire Gin, blueberries, tarragon and tonic water.

Dinner was at El Chorro Lodge with Doug McKenzie of the Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau. It was only about a mile from the hotel and looked like a Mexican villa. We took a tour of the grounds and buildings with one of the owners, Christine Moore. The property used to have rooms and cottages to rent. Many famous people came through here, in fact, Clark Gable was a frequent visitor to one of the bungalows. There were mountain views from all angles which looked especially beautiful during sunset.

The restaurant was rather large and had both indoor and outdoor seating.  We sat inside and started with some of their specialty cocktails. The Orchard drinks sounded great, but had a bit too much citrus for me. Susan enjoyed it. I had a tasty Bachelor in Paradise, with Maker’s Mark, Amaretto and cranberry juice.

While there was no doubt that the décor and property looked Mexican, the food was an international blend that started with the most amazing sticky buns instead of bread (the remaining would end up returning with us for breakfast).

For an appetizer, we shared some of the Pom Frites (little fried potato balls) and Grilled Cheese Bites, which came with three distinctly different types of mini sandwiches. They were all good, but the cheddar on cranberry bread was my favorite.

I ate a fabulous Polenta Napoleon for dinner that had some quinoa in one of the layers. It also came with a Carrot Pasta that had a bit of brown sugar and was a nice treat. Susan and I also split a twice-baked potato which was full of cheese and bacon. She really enjoyed her pork tenderloin.

The desserts arrived and I went for the Sweetheart Cake. It was one of the best desserts I’ve ever had, with lots of chocolate and a delicious cream that wasn’t too rich or sweet. It actually reminded me of a ring ding, but it was clear this didn’t come from a package.

We were back at the room early enough for a good night’s sleep and dreams about the positive weather forecast to come for our full day at the Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain.