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

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: 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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