Sweetness: The Drake Hotel, Toronto

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Whenever I travel, I make my best effort at experiencing a place as a local would. Yes of course, standing beneath the Eiffel Tower as it sparkles and twinkles at night is its own kind of next level magic, but so is finding yourself wandering down winding streets or discovering a day brightening citron presse at a café that wouldn’t be listed in a Fodor’s guide. Returning to a hotel, typically far removed from places where people actually live, always makes me a little sad and breaks the precious illusion that I’m some sort of local/tourist hybrid. So, that’s why I was so happy to discover The Drake Hotel in Toronto (no relation to Drake). It’s a rare mixture of the delightful luxuries of a hotel stay, but located in a lively neighborhood that feels like it could be your home (if only you were slightly cooler).

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The Drake Hotel is located on the far edge of Toronto’s Queen West neighborhood, a vibrant mix of shops, bars, restaurants, and art galleries. And, fittingly, the hotel itself is one living, breathing work of art, with installations and paintings in every conceivable space. Each of the hotel’s 19 rooms boasts unique pieces of art and character all its own.

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I stayed in a Den, which featured an incredibly comfortable queen-sized bed and a mini bar stocked with all the booze you could ever want. The bathrooms in the rooms are small but interestingly laid out—the bathroom door also doubles as a privacy screen for the shower. The throw blanket on the bed was produced by a local artist, and the terrifying/weirdly charming doll on the bed was also made by a local artist and was available for purchase.

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My favorite part of staying in The Drake? The bars (which makes me sound like an incredible lush and I honestly don’t really care because these bars are awesome). Hotel bars are typically watering holes for weary tourists and businessmen which means the drinks may be strong, but the surroundings lack character. Because The Drake is such a well-integrated piece of the neighborhood, actual people from Toronto flock to the two bars on-site; the Sky Yard (a rooftop deck that stays open year round), and the Lounge—my visit included a Friday and Saturday night stay, and on both nights, there was a line at least two dozen people long just to get in. The cocktails are strong and have playful names—I had more than one “Call Me Maybe” as well as a “Mother’s Little Helper.” Check the calendar for DJs and live music at either of those two bars or the Underground, located…below the hotel.

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Another high point of the hotel is the food. On my first night, I had delicious, sticky duck wings in The Lounge, and then for two consecutive mornings, the best blueberry scones I’ve ever eaten in my life from The Drake Café, located just off the lobby of the hotel.

 

During my wanders around the city, I noticed that most of the other hotels were centered closer in to the business and entertainment district, areas which are great for your standard tourist sightseeing activities, but don’t give you a sense of Toronto as a whole. The Drake isn’t near any tourist attractions, but there are street car stops just outside the door that will drop you downtown in less than half an hour, and you’re in the heart of one of the most multicultural cities in North America. It’s also ideally located for exploring some of Toronto’s best bars—a quick walk to The Lockhart (AKA the Harry Potter bar). It’s not a hotel for everyone—if you’re looking for a resort or a hotel that will provide you with an in-room Keurig and soothing, mass-produced Monet re-prints, this is definitely the wrong choice. But if want to feel like a part of the city you’re visiting rather than just a visitor, even just for a few nights, this is the hotel for you.

The Drake Hotel
http://www.thedrake.ca
1150 Queen Street West
Toronto, ON M6J 1J3

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Sweetness: The Lockhart, Toronto (AKA The Harry Potter Bar)

The downsides to being one of the last people in the western world to read the Harry Potter books are numerous—I knew how the books ended long before I’d started reading them, I spent years of my life confused by Halloween costumes that featured people drawing lightning bolts on their heads, and I just genuinely did not understand cultural references that seemed to be in a different language. The one upside is that by the time I’d finally read all the books (at the ripe age of 25), I was old enough to appreciate that butterbeer likely had some sort of alcohol in it, and it would be one of my life’s missions to find butterbeer in real life. And drink it.

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So, last fall, when I saw a number of articles about the “Harry Potter Bar” in Toronto, a city that had started to really fascinate me, I knew I’d need to book a trip. The Internet warned me that there would be an insanely long line for this tiny, intimate bar, but on the night my companion and I ventured into The Lockhart on a Sunday evening, we were among the first customers.

At first glance, The Lockhart seems like another small, hip bar with a somewhat obscure sounding name and a list of achingly trendy cocktails. But when you pass through the thick, velvet curtains (presumably there to block the draft from the very, very cold Toronto nights, but which lend an air of magic to your entrance into the bar), a closer look reveals a series of Harry Potter references that true fans/series devotees will catch, including, but not limited to: the words “Potions and Elxirs” are painted on the exposed brick wall above the bar, on one side of the bar is “Platform 9 ¾” sign, and the the name itself is a reference to a character from the books, the stag’s head bar logo, and cocktails like “The Befuddlement Draft” hint at the books (as well as what will happen to you once you’ve finished the drink). And the greatest touch of all–the words “All Was Well” hang on the wall in the form of a fluorescent lit sign (a reference to the last words of the last book in the series).

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Butterbeer (Left) and a Befuddlement Draft (Right)

We ordered the Befuddlement Draft, which includes a flaming shot and though it says it’s for 2 people, could easily serve 3-4. It was very strong. And very good. Though not listed on the menu, you can order butterbeer as an off menu item, and I have to say that this is exactly the butterbeer I’d imagined when reading J.K. Rowling’s words (we have an adequate option in Seattle, but still, The Lockhart’s is the best I’ve had). The bartenders are friendly, if slightly bemused by the presence of adults who (myself included) spend inordinate amounts of time photographing every aspect of their visit to The Lockhart. And even if you’re not a huge fan of the books, the drinks are strong and the atmosphere and music are a perfect place for a drink or two with someone special.

We visited the bar just a few days after the death of Alan Rickman (who played Severus Snape in the film adaptations of the series), and touching tributes to Snape/Alan Rickman were written all across the chalkboard walls that line the hallway to the bathroom (the bathrooms themselves are also worth a visit).

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On the blisteringly cold walk back from the bar to my hotel, along crooked streets lined with tidy, two-story brick homes, I was reminded of 4 Privet Drive and all the magic that started there for a young Harry. And even though I’m neither young nor a wizard, an evening spent in a place with such a playful spirit (combined with a healthy dose of butterbeer) lent a little bit of magic to my ordinary muggle life.

The Lockhart
http://www.thelockhart.ca
1479 DUNDAS STREET WEST, TORONTO, ON, M6J 1Y8, CANADA

Friday Five: Honolulu Favorites

Friday Five is back! And this time, I bring you my favorite five things from my recent trip to Hawaii.

The Bernice Puahi Bishop Museum

Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii
Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii

(http://www.bishopmuseum.org/)
Hawaii’s history is vastly different than that of almost all the other states–and yet I can’t remember a single history lesson about Hawaii other than Pearl Harbor and when it became the 50th state. The Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum makes all those missed history lessons accessible in one easily digestible and beautiful museum (special thanks to Auntie Suzi for allowing me to take a million and five pictures everywhere we went!). The museum itself is spread between several buildings–one devoted to a planetarium, one to the history of Hawaii and the people indigenous to the South Pacific, one that explores Hawaii’s flora and fauna (including a creepy/cool faux volcano), and one that digs into the many immigrants who have shaped the face of Hawaii. The museum is also off the tourist track, which is a nice change of pace from the hustle and bustle of Waikiki.

 

#6 from Ono Seafood in Honolulu, Hawaii
#6 from Ono Seafood in Honolulu, Hawaii

Ono Seafood (http://www.yelp.com/biz/ono-seafood-honolulu) So, first off, this restaurant is in the bottom of an apartment building, and is the very definition of a hole in a wall eatery. I paid close attention to warnings on Yelp that said not to pass it by, but when I walked in, was overwhelmed by the prospect of made to order poke and totally embarrassed myself while ordering (a direct quote from yours truly “I just want poke.” The woman taking orders looked at me unmoved while an elderly woman preparing the poke looked at me sweetly, the way you might look at someone you thought was simple), the minor embarrassment lasted only until the first forkful of poke passed my lips. This is, without a doubt, the best poke I have ever had in my life. Protip (aside from learning to read a menu)–I arrived around 11:15 a.m. on a Saturday and by the time I left (close to noon), the line was out the door. There are a couple long picnic tables, but not enough to be shy about asking to sit next to locals or fellow tourists.

Pali Lookout
Pali Lookout

Pali Lookout (http://www.gohawaii.com/en/oahu/regions-neighborhoods/windward-oahu/nuuanu-pali-lookout/) While my Auntie Suzi patiently guided me on a tour around Oahu, she mentioned the Battle of Nu’aunu–in 1795, Kamehameha drove more than 400 warriors led by Kalanikupule off the edge of the Pali Lookout where they fell to their deaths on the valley floor 1,000 feet below. Because of the mass death, the area around the Pali Lookout is said to possess a great deal of spirit activity. And, because I’m a strange person, Auntie Suzi’s story made me want to visit. The vista is breathtaking, in part because it’s impossibly windy, but also because it combines steep, rocky outcrops you’d expect in Scotland, combined with the lush, greenery of a tropical rainforest. And in the distance, the Pacific Ocean dazzles with its various shades of blue. There are also roving bands of wild chickens.

SHAVE ICE! From Waiola Shave Ice
SHAVE ICE! From Waiola Shave Ice

Waiola Shave Ice (http://www.waiolashaveice.com/) On my first trip to Oahu, I ventured up to the North Shore to Haleiwa (which is the most magical little town on Earth, to me), and had my first authentic Hawaiian shave ice. For the unacquainted, Hawaiian shave ice is nothing like our mainland shave ice (for one, it’s not shaved). Instead of the coarse ice crystals, shave ice has an almost ice cream like consistency. And to add to the amazing texture, you can get ice cream added to the bottom of your shave ice. I didn’t know you could get shave ice anywhere outside of the North Shore, but Auntie Suzi, the sage local, took me to Waiola (not far from Ono!) and ordered me a pineapple/lilikoi concoction that I will dream about for years to come.

Waikiki Beach before the crowds arrive
Waikiki Beach before the crowds arrive

Early Morning Swims When I was a kid, my mother forced me into swimming lessons. At first, I really hated them because there’s nothing so painful as being 7 and and lacking the speedy motor skills to peel away a one piece bathing suit when you need to heed nature’s call. But as I grew older, I came to understand that yes, knowing how to swim was important safety-wise, but the quiet tranquility offered when floating along in a pool or, you know, the Pacific Ocean, cannot be beat. So each morning while I was in Hawaii, I’d wake up early and head out to the beach to stake a claim on the cool sand before the crowds appeared. And as soon as the sun slipped above the highest of the Waikiki skyscrapers and began warming the waters off Waikiki Beach, I’d wade out with my GoPro and go for a swim.

Sweetness: The Royal Hawaiian Hotel

Royal Hawaiian Hotel Honolulu
The Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Honolulu, Hawaii

I am not a fancy hotel kind of girl. When searching reviews on TripAdvisor, I scan photos only to be sure there are no bed bug infestations to worry about. I look for clean, safe, relatively centrally located and calm, but luxury resorts are typically the antithesis to both my travel identity and, you know, budget. But during a rewatch of my favorite show of all time, “Mad Men,” I was inspired by Don’s season 6 opener vacation to Honolulu and decided I wanted to stay at The Royal Hawaiian. From the moment I booked my reservation I knew things were different—I received a personal mail from the concierge asking questions about my stay and received no stock answers, but actual recommendations based on my questions. I arrived late one Thursday night on the last flight from Seattle to Honolulu, and decided to take the shuttle offered through Starwood (they welcome you with a lei! Something I secretly wanted on each of my three previous trips to Hawaii but thought I was too cool for). At night, you don’t fully appreciate how much of an oasis The Royal Hawaiian is from the hustle and bustle Waikiki—it’s almost like there’s some sort of biodome fitted neatly around the property. And though I was covered in the scent of airplane and Dramamine, I felt welcomed. Not in the obsequious way that usually occurs at luxury hotels, but in a way that suggests the Ambassadors (Royal Hawaiian staff) are well trained in the art of hospitality.

Historic Wing Garden View Room at The Royal Hawaiian
Historic Wing Garden View Room at The Royal Hawaiian

I checked into my room (Garden View, Historic Wing), a large, l-shaped situation with an oversized fan spinning lazily above my bed. My windows looked out onto the lush drive and entry way to the hotel, and after a restful night’s sleep, I sat in a chair munching the Royal Hawaiian’s trademark banana bread as early morning light transformed into a brilliant day.

On my first morning, I decided to indulge in a very good

Waffles with Coconut Syrup and Whipped Cream at The Royal Hawaiian's Surf Lanai Restaurant
Waffles with Coconut Syrup and Whipped Cream at The Royal Hawaiian’s Surf Lanai Restaurant

(if, admittedly slightly overpriced) breakfast at the on property Surf Lanai restaurant. Breakfast was pricey but the view was priceless, and allowed me one of my favorite pasttimes in Hawaii—watching people take in the site of the ocean for the first time. You can almost see when vacation mode clicks on in people’s brains as they stare, unblinking into the impossibly clear and turquoise blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. Children, released for a few moments from the protective grasp of their parents’ hands and frolic in the surf while their parents’ feet sink into the soft sand. The same slow, genuine smile spreads over every face, and it is an amazing sight to behold in this time where our eyes are almost always cast down, lit by the eerie glow of an electronic device screen.

Archway at The Royal Hawaiian Hotel
Archway at The Royal Hawaiian Hotel

The six-story Moorish architecture inspired resort opened in February of 1927, and with its trademark pink façade has been dubbed “The Pink Palace of the Pacific.” And while the color pink is omnipresent (chairs, towels, umbrellas, toiletry bottles, hats, rugs, etc.), it never becomes overwhelming and is instead just a neat, vintage quirk. With the exception of the Moana Surfrider, all of the big Waikiki hotels are enormous skyscraper structures, and while The Royal Hawaiian recently opened a tower of its own, the intimacy afforded by the historic wing of the hotel is unparalleled. Almost every hallway ends in a beautiful vista of either the grounds or the ocean or the gardens, or an intoxicating blend of all three. There are also quiet seating areas tucked around most corners. One night, I sat with my notebook and a can of Hawaiian Sun and wrote for a couple hours, listening to the waves crash against the shore and the gentle murmur of the two nearby restaurants/bars. The hotel has played host to Hawaiian and Hollywood royalty, but is equally welcoming to a regular vacationer like yours truly.

View from a beach chair at The Royal Hawaiian Hotel
View from a beach chair at The Royal Hawaiian Hotel

One of the other splurges I made on this very #treatyoself trip was renting a chair on the beach. For $40, you get two chairs (I used one) and an umbrella from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. (which is actually a really good value, I’ve seen resorts on other islands that charge twice that). Ordinarily, it takes me a good two to three days to train myself not to check mail on vacation, but a solid four hours of sitting on the beach doing nothing convinced me that, yes, unplugging was best. The people watching on Waikiki Beach is unparalleled. Though I did not take advantage of this, the Waikiki Beach Boys who staff the chair rental area will get (non alcoholic) drinks for you and help you order food.

After a day of doing nothing, I worked up quite a thirst and found my way to the Mai Tai Bar, which also boasts views of the Pacific Ocean. Hawaii is such an effortlessly beautiful place, one that begs for constant photo taking and selfies, but the longer you stay, the less likely you are to want to take pictures. On a busy Friday afternoon, I spotted not a single iPhone out (I did see a lot of GoPros, but I give those a pass). Instead, everyone was either amiably chatting to their travel companion or, if solo (like myself), trying their level best to absorb the salt, sea, sand, and sunshine by sitting perfectly still.

The Last Cocktail and Haupia Cake at The Mai Tai Bar at The Royal Hawaiian Hotel
The Last Cocktail and Haupia Cake at The Mai Tai Bar at The Royal Hawaiian Hotel

On my last night in Hawaii, totally overwhelmed at the prospect of leaving paradise behind, I sidled up to the bar for a slide of haupia (coconut) cake—pink, naturally—and a cocktail fittingly titled “The Last Cocktail.” Behind me, two musicians and a hula dancer entertained the mellow crowd, transporting everyone, even just for a few minutes, not to a simpler place, but into a state of total traniquility, right where they are.

With carefully cared for vintage architecture, furnishings, displays (old school long boards, dresses worn by Hawaiian royalty), and outstanding service, it’s easy to understand why the producers and writers of “Mad Men” chose The Pink Palace of the Pacific as the location of an episode. Everything about the hotel is transformative, and forces you to take a few minutes to relax, and enjoy your surroundings. And for me, it taught me that while my budget hotel tendencies make sense some times, it’s okay to splurge on a place as unique and spectacular as The Royal Hawaiian. I’ve been back for less than a week, and I’m already saving my pennies and thinking of when I can return.

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Pros

  • Location, location, location
  • Architecture
  • History
  • Service

Cons

  • $35/day resort fee includes free long distance phone calls, but do people really use their hotel room phones anymore? So it seems like a waste to say that’s a bonus since most people are not using it.
  • The food is very expensive (good, though). I would not recommend eating there every day, but a couple special occasion meals during your stay are well worth the $$$$.

The Royal Hawaiian Hotel
2259 Kalakaua Avenue
Honolulu, HI 96815
http://www.royal-hawaiian.com/

Sweetness: My Way

photo(3)A couple months ago, as I eyed this basically abandoned blog, I told myself I would write an epic recap of my twenties on the last day of my twenties. Weeks went by, and now I’m here, staring at the thing that terrifies me most in the world—a blank Word document with a cursor, blinking at and taunting me. Every sentence I have started sounded like a terrible cliché—a series of sad tropes that people trot out on milestone birthdays. “30 is not that old!” “30 is the new 20!” “You’re still young!” And here’s the thing—I know 30 is not that old, and I know that 30 is relatively young (I hope that 30 is not the new 20, unless it involves me having the metabolism of a 20-year-old and living in Paris). But I’m not here to make apologies for my twenties (because, as ol’ blue eyes said “regrets, I’ve had a few.”). I’m here to tell you that my twenties were an alternately joyous, terrifying, soul-crushing, dreamy, enchanting, and maddening time—but I didn’t fully realize how much I’ve grown and accomplished until one Sunday night this past May.

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Friday Five: My Favo(u)rite London Things

The Houses of Parliament
The Houses of Parliament

I have a well-documented love affair with Paris. It is a city that long ago captured my heart and imagination, and there isn’t anywhere else in the world that fills me with the kind of inexplicable joy I feel as I walk down Paris’ frequently crotte-covered cobblestoned streets.

That was until I made my most recent visit to London. I have visited London more than half a dozen times, and each time, the city has meant something different to me. On my first visit, I was a college senior who inexplicably chose a cold city for my final spring break. Subsequent trips saw me alternately as a lovestruck would-be graduate student, a confused young professional, an actual graduate student, and now as a not-so-young, nor as confused professional. And my view of the city changed and shifted each time I viewed it through a different lens.

London never struck me with its beauty and charm the way Paris did. London requires you

The famous warnings on the Tube to "Mind the gap between the train and the platform."
The famous warnings on the Tube to “mind the gap between the train and the platform.”

to earn your charmingly English experiences. It’s not as obviously beautiful as Paris, and Londoners aren’t particularly friendly. Every corner in Paris reveals a scene that could’ve been plucked from Amelie, but London is not this way–I have never had a moment where I felt like I was living in a Richard Curtis film (and maybe that’s a good thing). But the biggest difference between my respect for London and affection for Paris? I can never quite see myself living in Paris–my American sensibilities are still too strong for me to live in a city where striking is an art form–I could absolutely see myself living in London. It could be because I have friends in London, or that the language is my native tongue. It could be that the quiet, somewhat taciturn people jive a little bit more with my own introverted nature. All I know is that London finally grabbed my heart this time ’round. And here are my five favorite things from my most recent trip.

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The Budget Traveler: London House Hotel Review

I am weirdly cheap about certain things–as much as I love Uber, nine times out of ten, I will take public transportation to/from most airports. In fact, I will bus most places unless absolutely necessary that I take a car (for example, last month, I got hopelessly lost in an area of Seattle that I am deeply unfamiliar with and which does not have sidewalks, so had to summon Uber). When I first started making my solo travel adventures abroad, I eagerly booked into cheap hostels, where I met some great people (some of whom I still keep in contact with) and managed to save a lot of money to keep me in the clear as I ate and drank my way through Western Europe. But somewhere along the line, maybe around 25 or so, I began to let go of my desire to pinch pennies when it came to where I lay my head down. Gone were the days where my body could withstand hours of liver abuse and rally on three hours of sleep that were interrupted by loud snoring from the person in the bunk above me. So, I spent a considerable amount of time scouring the Internet for hostels and hotels that offered single rooms (preferably with an ensuite shower, because I was also tired of packing my own shower shoes) for a reasonable price. And you know what? Those places exist. They’re just very hard to find.

Enter London House Hotel, located in Bayswater, London. It is by no means a fancy hotel–there’s no room service, no on-site restaurant, no bar. But what it lacks in on-site services it more than makes up with in price, location, and room quality.

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Recipe for Inspiration: Get Packing

I took my first airplane trip when I was six years old. At the time, my mom and I were living in the Bay Area, and my dad lived in Seattle. After a couple years of my dad traipsing up and down the West Coast to pick me up for our summers together, it was decided that I’d start flying, solo, to Seattle for visits. Even at six, I felt a slight sense of exhiliration as I walked onto the plane alone (well, not alone, guided by a kindly flight attendant), and I felt like a grown up as I buckled myself into my seat.

Since then, I’ve taken countless trips alone–in fact, most of the trips I take involve me flying solo. And because I travel alone, I make special preparations in how and what I pack–I don’t like carrying a lot of extra bags because more often than not, I take public transportation to and from airports. I’m also unable to rely on someone else to help out in case I forget something, and so I have become a lean, mean packing machine with a mini personal pharmacy in tow. I’m always fascinated by sites like What’s In Your Bag, so I decided to chronicle a few of the things I’m packing for my upcoming trip to London. Click through for photos and descriptions. And let me know how you pack in the comments!

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30 Before 30

20130806-205715.jpgWhen I was a little girl, I was always impatient for life to move a little more quickly–for Christmas to come or my birthday to arrive or for a vacation to happen. Days drag on and on when you’re a kid–calendars seem almost limitless. I remember my grandma Dorothy once telling me that after 25, the years go by in six months. As a kid, the thought was totally abstract, but what she said stuck with me. Now, as I stare down 30 and take stock of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of my 20s, I realize my grandma was right–the years fly by, leaving you wondering where all the time went and why your list of “would have/could have/should have” is so long.

To that end, I’ve come up with a list of 30 things I would like to accomplish before I turn 30. Some of the things are silly, lots involve cooking, many involve buying the kinds of things that signal full-on adulthood. Every item is something I’ve wanted to accomplish but never took the time to set a real goal or deadline for achievement. I hope this list will help me pack a lot into the six month long year ahead. I’ll document my accomplishments here ( with photographic evidence) and maybe it’ll inspire you to make a list of your own.

1. Lose 30 pounds
2. Finish my novel
3. Visit a state I’ve never been to
4. Start French classes again
5. Run a 5k
6. Frame my collection of posters
7. Print out some of my travel photos/frame them
8. Start saving for retirement in earnest
9. Take a cooking class in Seattle
10. Finish a hike
11. Go to a Seahawks game (I’ve never been to one!)
12. Make macarons from scratch
13. Organize my closet/do a huge donation of my old clothes
14. Take a dance class
15. Plan a trip to a country I’ve never been to
16. Go back to Hawaii
17. Establish a blog updating schedule
18. Stick to that schedule
19. Re-read Anne of Green Gables
20. Make a baguette from scratch
21. Make Tom Douglas’ coconut cream pie from scratch
22. Take the train to Vancouver, B.C.
23. Budget for buying a condo
24. Send my novel to book publishers
25. Self publish my book
26. Go to a concert of an artist I know and love but have never seen live
27. Buy an investment piece of furniture
28. Set up a vanity in my bedroom
29. Invest in a DSLR
30. Learn another foreign language

Sweetness: Paris Is Always a Good Idea

vscocam524Here’s the thing—I could probably write a seriously detailed, day by day account of my trip to Paris. There wouldn’t be anything new, or anything you couldn’t find on any other travel guide website…good places to eat, stare at fashionably dressed French babies, and where to stay (I will be posting about the awesome cooking course I took at La Cuisine Paris, however). But the thing about travel is that the real stuff, the stuff that changes you and makes you want to get back out there and see the rest of the world? It usually doesn’t have anything to do with where you ate or how you got there; it has to do with how you felt while you were doing it. Or, in my case, being somewhere familiar, yet exploring totally unknown feelings with the sort of depth only afforded you when you are outside your comfort zone. 

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