Wanderlust Wednesday: Amboise, France

Christmas decorations in Amboise, France

Like most other places, Chicago is all dressed up for Christmas–already. And while it looks beautiful, it’s over the top which seems to be par for the course in most cities in the U.S. at this time of year. I still vividly remember the gaudy gold garland that hung across the streets in the town where I grew up.

I wish we did it more like Europe. Something about Christmas decor in Europe is simpler but prettier. A few years ago, we spent time in France right after Christmas and luckily in time to still see their Christmas decorations. Lots of lights and simple, festive touches like this dressed up most streets.

Friday Faves: November 23, 2012

I don’t know about you, but I’m barely out of my self-inflicted food coma which can really only mean one thing — it was a successful Thanksgiving by all accounts. So while I sit (okay, lay) here in my comfy pants in my food hangover state, here are a few links to enjoy while you are hopefully doing the same.

I’m one of the poor schmucks traveling by plane this holiday season, but since my husband and I are such smarty pants, we smartly booked our flights on the off travel days — meaning I flew out last Sunday and my husband on Thanksgiving morning, and we’ll go home tomorrow. So hopefully we won’t need these five tips for saner holiday travel. I think they forgot, “don’t leave your countless bags abandoned in the terminal.” Yes, this is a real picture of what I sat across from while waiting to board my flight at Chicago O’hare last weekend.

Abandoned luggage
This is the kind of thing that shuts down an entire airport, people.

I loathe Black Friday. What’s worse is the poor people who work for the retailers (and coffee shops, Starbucks!) that have the audacity to be open on Thanksgiving. And if you were considering venturing out to shop today, perhaps you should first review these 43 great reasons why you shouldn’t.

Besides, why do you need to leave the confines of your comfy home? There are deals to be had online. And might I remind you, if you opt for online bargain hunting, don’t forget to sign up to shop via Ebates first. Unless, of course, you don’t want cash back just for shopping.

Alas, if you are crazy enough to brave the nonsense that is Black Friday, then at least go into it armed.

Now, I know Thanksgiving is over and now is not the time to share Thanksgiving recipes, but there’s no reason you can’t serve a delicious pumpkin cheesecake at Christmastime. Or next Saturday. Or whenever you want. I made this delicious Paula Dean cheesecake last Thanksgiving and there wasn’t so much as a morsel of a leftover.

I was a little sad that we didn’t host Thanksgiving this year, because I was also really wanting to make Giada’s garlic and sun-dried tomato corn muffins, which I also made last year. These will be served on Christmas Eve, though, I have decided.

Phew. I’m spent. With that, I hope you enjoy your day of eating leftovers or god forbid, shopping.

I’ll have a ball sac, to go, please

I knew that would get your attention.

You can enjoy a ball sac — and more — at one of my favorite Middle Eastern restaurants in Chicago’s Loop, Benjyehuda. Located on Van Buren between Franklin and Wells, Benjyehuda is one of the better non-chain options in the financial district. Not only that, but you can get a relatively cheap lunch here.

Benjyehuda is run by a husband and wife duo and it’s named after Ben Yehuda street in Jerusalem. Though the menu is said to consist of urban street foods, it leans heavily Middle Eastern with offerings like falafel (hence, the ball sac which is a half-dozen falafel), hummus, chicken and steak shawarma and more. Everything is made fresh when you order, similar in concept to Chipotle.

My go-to lunch is a falafel on romaine with all the fixins. And “all” consists of hummus, baba ganoush, tehini, hot sauce, Mediterranean pickles, Jerusalem salad, corn salad, red cabbage salad and carrot salad.

Benjyehuda falafel box

What I love most is that everything is so incredibly fresh and delicious — just as it looks. And did I mention it’s cheap?

Friday Faves: November 16, 2012

This week I attended a travel industry event in Scottsdale, Arizona. There were tons of innovators at the show demonstrating their new products — mostly websites and mobile apps related to travel. Here are a few of my favorites.

Who doesn’t want to be on the VIP list when they travel? Want Me Get Me lets you sign up for just that — plus other travel perks.

I know, it seems like there are countless hotel search engines as it is. But DealAngel dubs itself a “find engine,” not a search engine. The interface is great with a map that allows you to select points of interest.

I would like CLEAR a whole lot more if they came to O’Hare International. As much as I enjoy waiting in security lines and all…

Admittedly a miles whore, Superfly intrigued me. I’m all for achieving elite status faster, but I hate having one more thing to join with my Facebook account, or letting them scour my email account for past trips.

Air travel gives me anxiety when things are on time. Multiply that by 100 when I’m going to be delayed — especially if I have a connecting flight. KnowDelay is genius; it scores your flights for you up to three days in advance and suggests a better route if you’re going to be delayed. The only downfall? You’re the one who will have to pay those pesky change fees.

Happy travels!

The Dixie Chicken

I appreciate college tradition. As an Illini, I bleed orange and blue and always sing “Hail to the Orange” (complete with side-to-side swaying) at football games. But I think few universities take tradition to the same level as Texas A & M University in College Station, Texas. What, with that “whoop” and all…

I had been to the A & M campus once when I was in high school but went back recently since we have family living in College Station now — including an Aggie. It didn’t take much convincing to get him to take us to lunch at The Dixie Chicken, an A & M staple since 70s which he just so happened to work at back in the day.

The Chicken, as it’s affectionately dubbed, is really the epitome of your favorite college dive bar — think smelly, sticky floors, beer and greasy (but tasty!) food. They even have “stuff.” Yes, that’s an actual menu item that isn’t legible from the shot below but I promise it’s on there. Some regulars overheard me asking about it so they volunteered that it’s almost like a dip or spread consisting of meat, tomatoes, onion, cheese and gravy.

The Dixie Chicken

While I didn’t opt for the Stuff, I did enjoy a cheeseburger with fries — and a few of the deliciously bad onion rings my husband ordered. It did not disappoint.

One thing that The Chicken offers that your typical college bar may not is a relaxing wrap-around porch. The porch overlooks what is known as Bottle Cap Alley… which is… just what it sounds like.

Bottle Cap Alley

Hotel Westminster, Livingston, New Jersey

Although I lived in New Jersey for around two years, the only thing I really know of Livingston, New Jersey is the only thing I can imagine you really need to know about Livingston. And that is, the Mall at Short Hills.

Sadly, though I was in Livingston this past weekend, I didn’t make it to the Mall at Short Hills. Or anywhere, really, since we had no rental car. This should come as no surprise, seeing as how the walkability score of Livingston is a whopping 31.

So what could have possibly brought me to beautiful Livingston (it actually is very pretty) if not the shopping mall? A wedding. It was held at the Hotel Westminster, which unfortunately is within walking distance of nothing.

Hotel Westminster is apparently quite a popular wedding venue, so at least we were in the right place for such an occasion! Relatively contemporary in style, the hotel has just under 200 rooms and if the others are anything like our room, they are well-appointed.

I can be finicky, to say the least, about certain things I look for in a hotel room. And these aren’t even major things nor are they necessarily a big deal to other guests, but little, simple things that make me happy. For example, I really appreciate appropriately-positioned outlets and enough of them. Really. Why is it that the outlets near the bedside are typically out of reach (behind the bed) or all used? Good lighting is another plus in my book — especially in the bathroom. And while I’m talking about the bathroom, let me make note of the importance of good water pressure in the shower. I was able to check all of these and more off of my list at Hotel Westminster.

By “and more,” I mean things that I would’ve never even thought of myself. Who could fathom, for example, something as genius as a sucker-holder in the bathroom? Where have these been all my life?

Sucker holder
Your Tootsie Pops are waiting for you after you finish brushing your teeth–handy!

Everything else paled in comparison, including the view from our room (#243), which was of the roof.

View from room 243

Good to Know

  • If you’re staying at Hotel Westminster for a wedding, do yourself a favor and book your room early. We got the last room when we checked into the hotel.
  • If you want to do anything outside of the hotel, rent a car. There are nearby restaurants, but not within walking distance, and Livingston must not believe in sidewalks because there are none, at least not in the proximity of the hotel.
  • All-day dining offered at the hotel is not, in fact, “all-day.” It’s from 5:30 – 10:30 p.m. on Saturdays, so if you want lunch or a snack before that time, you will need to leave the hotel.
  • The hotel offers a complimentary shuttle. They were nice enough to take us to a nearby deli to grab lunch when “all-day” dining failed us.
  • Mitola’s Deli is near the hotel and a great spot to grab a sandwich, but again, you’ll need a car (or the hotel shuttle) to get there.

Friday Faves: November 9, 2012

I don’t know about you, but this one hour time change has really kicked my butt this week. I cannot seem to get enough sleep, and for once it’s not because of my hubby sawing logs next to me.

And while I’d really love nothing more than to spend the weekend relaxing, that’s unfortunately not in the cards. It’s another out of town weekend for me — this time to one of my husband’s closest friend’s wedding in New Jersey. My husband and I have both been traveling a lot lately — with more to come in the next two weeks — so we both tried to think of acceptable reasons not to go. Not because we don’t want to go to the wedding, but because we’re both cringing at the idea of getting on a plane again.

While I contemplate how I’m possibly going to get any sleep on tonight’s flight, you enjoy these favorites from around the web this week.

Okay, this first one does not qualify as a fave so much as an, “are you serious?” Clearly the election is over and there’s nothing newsworthy to talk about anymore because gems like this are being dubbed as news. Brilliant reporting. So that’s what the rest of the world meant all this time when they said that Thanksgiving is the busiest travel season of the year.

Always refreshing to know I’m not the only one dealing with constructive criticism, although my personal favorite is, “make it sing” or “make it pop!”

As I mentioned, we’re heading out of town for the weekend and though we usually fork over the cash for a cab to the airport, we drive whenever we’re not in a rush. This is the best site for finding affordable airport parking. We’re paying less to park for three days than half of what cab fare would be.

Since cold weather is officially here (at least in Chicago), this trusty favorite is once again an essential.

I’ve made these Nutella Rolls a few times now and they are divine. I wonder if the room service menu will have anything remotely as tasty this weekend…

Wanderlust Wednesday: London, England

I’ve got London on my mind. I’m reminiscing about being there four years ago and spending last night celebrating President Obama’s historical win with my fellow ex-pats (plus a few Brits, Germans and others).

After spending the night out celebrating, I strolled on home to Soho.

Soho, London

And these were my neighbors — the British Sex Shop and City Gates Church Center. Talk about convenient. Sin and repent, all on the same block!