Bliss at The Black Walnut Inn & Vineyard in Dundee, Oregon

KP and I make it a point to celebrate — or at the very least, acknowledge — milestones. We don’t let a birthday go by without some fanfare and the same is true for our wedding anniversary. Some years are more elaborate than others. Our first anniversary was marked with an amazing trip to the Napa Valley. But when year three snuck up on us, we were learning how to be parents with a three-month old plus a kitchen reno in progress. We still went out to dinner at our favorite neighborhood spot to celebrate.

Five years of marriage felt like a milestone worth celebrating in a memorable way! We talked about Italy, but it just didn’t seem realistic with a two-year-old. So we put that idea on the back burner and thought about places closer to home. Our honeymoon in St. Thomas was ah-mazing and repeatable, but when you live in Texas, the last place you want to go in mid-August is someplace hot — and someplace that is prone to hurricanes (the memory of cutting our honeymoon one day short thanks to Hurricane Earl was still too fresh). So we decided the Pacific Northwest would be the place to celebrate — Portland and the Willamette Valley in Oregon, to be exact.

I did a lot of research before booking our accommodations in the Willamette Valley. Maybe too much, as I tend to do. I’d only been there once before and I wasn’t sure which town we wanted to stay in or if we wanted to do a B & B or a hotel. The Black Walnut Inn & Vineyard in Dundee seemed perfect. Not a hotel but not a typical B & B, luxurious, unique and peaceful. It’s all of these things and then some.

The Black Walnut Inn | Dundee, Oregon

The Black Walnut is nestled away from it all. We drove along a hilly road sandwiched between grape vineyards on either side, then up, up, up the tree-lined driveway which conjured images of “over the river and through the woods…” until we got to the top.

The Black Walnut Inn & Vineyard | Dundee, Oregon
The Black Walnut Inn & Vineyard | Dundee, Oregon

I knew this place was a good pick before we even parked the car.

The Black Walnut Inn & Vineyard | Dundee, Oregon

Even though Italy didn’t make the cut, I felt like we had arrived at a European villa. It was just so picturesque. Well-manicured. Green. Quiet.

Our home for three days
Our home for three days

We booked the Vista room which is on the ground floor of the inn and on the end, so we only had one neighbor and three outside living spaces all to ourselves. The room was massive. It really felt like a home away from home.

The Black Walnut Inn & Vineyard | Vista
Photo credit: Kristian Gibson, Kindred Spirit Photography (used with permission from The Black Walnut Inn & Vineyard)

Wine is what drew us to the Willamette Valley, but the inn kept pulling us back. I slept better than I have in a long time. Maybe the wine had a little something to do with that, but I think the inn gets some credit, too. It was pleasantly quiet and the beds had these amazing Jennifer Adams sheets (which I am anxious awaiting to come back in stock so I can order a set for home!). They were life-changing. Sleep-changing? Plus, with a view like this, it was impossible to feel anything but relaxed.

Our room faced Mt. Hood, but we only saw the faintest outline of it on the first day.
Our room faced Mt. Hood, but we only saw the faintest outline of it on the first day.

Our room was heavenly. The views were beyond picturesque. The oatmeal chocolate chip cookies (often warm) in the cookie jar in the living room tempted us daily (two or three times a day, in fact). Breakfast with a little dog at my feet made me feel like I was at home. The innkeepers were lovely — not overbearing but there with recommendations when we needed them. Bliss.

Oh, and the views…

Views from the Black Walnut Inn & Vineyard | Dundee, Oregon

This one is going to be hard to top!

Girlfriend Getaway in Los Angeles

California Dreamin'

After I gave birth to Nora, KP suggested that I sign up for this motherhood class offered by the hospital. It sounded like an awful idea to me. I have no idea why I thought that — maybe the hormones? I was certain it was going to be some stereotypical new-mom gathering where we held hands and sang “Kumbaya,” and/or a husband-bashing session. Begrudgingly, I signed up for it.

I think it was called Transition to Motherhood, and it was specifically for first-time moms. And yeah, there were some Kumbaya-ish moments, but not many. There were more husband-bashing moments (see above regarding hormones). It was more so about connecting new moms who were going through this new journey in their lives and giving them a sounding board. We were all hormonal. And we did our fair share of bitching. And maybe even a little crying.

After only a few weeks, I had to do what I hate doing — admit KP was right about something. The group was awesome. But more so, the little group that I kept in touch with after the class ended now consists of three dear girlfriends that I’m so lucky to have in my life. I can’t imagine going through Nora’s first (or second) year of life without them. Their kids are all the same age as Nora so we’ve all gone through a lot of the same things — often at the same time. Now I’m the stereotypical mom, but they seriously are my mama tribe — and then some.

Post-motherhood class, the tribe and I got together on a regular basis and our mom talk turned into more just regular friend talk. Of course we talked about our kids a ton, but these ladies went from being my “mom friends” to just being my friends. It wasn’t long before two of us left Chicago, though, breaking up the tribe. Shortly before I moved to Austin, another friend moved to Los Angeles.

Sure, we’re all still just a text or email away, but it just isn’t the same. So we’ve vowed to get together in person as much as possible, and our first trip was to Los Angeles in March. Two and a half baby-free and husband-free days, and three wild and crazy nights. Ha! Who am I kidding? “Wild and crazy” barely fit into my vocabulary anymore. Now it’s all about being home by 11 and in comfy pants!

It’s funny how my priorities have changed since having a child. Girlfriend getaways used to mean lots of booze, late nights and sleeping in, then rehashing it all the next day over brunch. Now I’m too tired for that! And I wasn’t alone. I feel confident speaking for all of us by saying that we mostly wanted to relax, soak up some California sunshine and eat some yummy food. And that’s exactly what we did on this blissful girlfriend getaway in sunny Los Angeles.

Where I Ate, Drank and Slept in Los Angeles

Pump

Vander Pump Restaurant (or simply, Pump)

Touristy, yes. But with three of the four of us being fans of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, we felt obligated to at least have a cocktail at Pump. Plus, I love Lisa’s decorating style and wanted to see one of her places in person! It’s as gorgeous as it looks on TV. Loved these chandeliers over the bar on the lush patio. Pump was just a quick stop for a cocktail before dinner, but we were all a bit nippish so we ordered the hummus and pita. And then we laughed. The dish consisted of a normal portion of hummus, but with just four sad looking pieces of hummus. And this is how Hollywood stays thin. We had our first celebrity sighting, although we debated if we should even count it since we were in his restaurant… but Ken was there with Giggy. I gave him a little pet on the head (Giggy, not Ken), which Ken didn’t seem to appreciate.

The Church Key

The Church Key was on Bravo’s Best New Restaurant, a show that I somehow missed entirely, which is surprising given the amount of Bravo that I watch. That said, I don’t know if they won or lost, but I felt like a very hip mama hanging out there. Lots of pretty, edgy people. And while Pump left us hungry, The Church Key did not. They have these dim sum-style carts that came around very sporadically, but we fared better with the regular menu. My favorites were the Jidori chicken “tikka massala” and the brioche doughnuts for dessert. A perfect ending to the meal — and I’m not even a big dessert person.

Gjelina

More pretty, edgy people at Gjelina. Noticing a trend here? It’s LA, after all! Don’t ask how, but we managed to score patio seating for our big group (we had some more friends join our four-some) on a busy Saturday night. Even though it was so dark I could barely read the menu, I loved sitting outside. Our table ordered lots and lots of dishes to share. If memory serves, I glanced at the menu (squinted, rather), and decided to leave the ordering in the hands of my talented friends, all of whom have good taste buds.

The Farm of Beverly Hills

We spent Saturday afternoon hiking Runyon Canyon, then cruised around Beverly Hills. Naturally the Real Housewives fans had to see the Beverly Hills sign in person. We parked ourselves at The Farm for a late lunch. I loved this place, and not just because of the life-changing tea we drank. More on that in a sec. We weren’t able to score a table outside, but the front of the restaurant was open so it was light and airy inside, too. This is just one of those comfy, casual spots to grab a leisurely lunch with the girls. Yes, comfy and casual in Beverly Hills. Or maybe I just decided it was casual since the four of us were all in our workout pants and probably a tad bit sweaty post-hike. Regardless, we all had this tea that cooled us off and was so delicious it was addicting. We even got to-go cups. And because we were so obsessed with it, we had to ask… it’s Art of Tea Passionfruit Jasmine and according to the website, it’s award-winning… so don’t just take my word for it. The food was great, too. Think wraps and salads and such.

 

Pinkberry

Pinkberry

My Pinkberry obsession began with this trip to Los Angeles. I couldn’t get enough. And, the trip just so happened to be after I saw Still Alice, so I went with Alice’s go-to every time: original with coconut and blueberries. Thank god we have Pinkberry in Austin.  And thank god they aren’t as prevalent here as they are in Los Angeles.

Hotel Wilshire

Hotel Wilshire

Since we were in LA to visit a friend, we stayed with her. She and her family live in this adorable apartment in Brentwood, and I’m so jealous because she has so many great places that she can walk to in her neighborhood, including multiple coffee shops, nail salons, the farmer’s market, Whole Foods… I could go on and on… but I digress. We slept at her place two of the three nights.

We decided to splurge and stay at a hotel on Friday night. It was our treat for our hostess. I think we were all thinking we’d sleep in, forgetting that we’re now moms who are programmed to wake up early, regardless of whether or not there’s a screaming child in the next room. (Spoiler alert: we didn’t sleep in.) We booked Hotel Wilshire, and the Pretty Woman quotes began (“Reg. Bev. Wil.”), even though that’s a different hotel… Hotel Wilshire is what you’d expect from Kimpton, which is what I love about them. Although each hotel is a little different, you know what you’re gonna get. Hotel Wilshire is modern and trendy, a little CB2-ish. Our room was big enough for four women to have a bit of space, and there was a completely separate sitting area that we didn’t even use. But the best part of the hotel was the rooftop pool and restaurant. It was so nice to soak up a little sun at breakfast before we checked out of the hotel.

Los Angeles was the perfect spot for our girlfriend getaway. It was March, so the Chicagoans in the group got a much-needed reprieve from the cold. The weather was amazingly gorgeous the entire weekend — sunny and warm. And we got to do exactly what we wanted — hang out, catch up and eat delicious food. It’s my turn to host the ladies next spring, and I hope Austin can measure up to So Cal!

The Westin St. Louis

The Westin St. Louis

I’m in love with The Westin St. Louis. There, I got that out of the way.

KP and I stayed at The Westin St. Louis a few Friday nights ago. A night out for two sleep-deprived parents. The fact that the hotel was so lovely was just the icing on the cake. So, what makes it so great? Where shall I begin…

It’s a Westin, so the Heavenly Bed prevails and guess what — the bed is heavenly. The Heavenly Bed is my favorite thing about staying at Westins (well, that and the SPG points since our stay at the St. Regis bled us dry). For a stay-at-home-mom who sleeps in never, sleeping until 8:30 on a Saturday morning was pure bliss. And, I might add, it was a restful, quiet sleep. It was so very quiet. No elevator noise. No shenanigans in the hallway. No doors slamming. Maybe they had us on the sleep-deprived floor and didn’t tell us.

Our room was huge. Huge. We were upgraded to a Deluxe King — larger than a king room with a little sitting area. The high ceilings gave the room a loft-like feel. And the room was designed smartly; even though the sleeping area was big, they didn’t skimp by cutting into the bathroom space — it was spacious, too (dual sinks, soaking tub, roomy rain shower).

I had forgotten all about this Westin gem until I opened the closet:

Westin Workout

How genius is that? I told myself that I should take advantage of Westin Workout on Saturday morning before we checked out. And then I told myself that brunch also sounded nice.

There’s a restaurant/bar — Clark Street Grill  — adjacent to the lobby. Of course we took advantage and had a late afternoon drink (or two). I was a little surprised at how empty it was given that time of day on a Friday, but who am I to bemoan a seat at the bar?

I can’t forget to mention the perfect location of the Westin St. Louis. It is literally right across the street from Busch Stadium and the Gateway Arch and riverfront are within walking distance. We had dinner in Soulard and it was a very quick car ride away.

Can’t wait for our next weekend in St. Louis so we can make a date with my new love.

A Weekend in Savannah, Georgia

Where to Eat, Sleep and Sightsee in Savannah, Georgia

One of the 22 Savannah squares
One of the 22 Savannah squares
Photo credit: Curious Expeditions

“Have you ever been to Savannah? Thoughts?” So asks one of my friends recently. Thoughts? Just one: go! Savannah is bea-u-ti-ful! My husband and I visited Savannah a few Octobers ago, which just so happens to be a lovely time of year to visit.

Savannah, Georgia Hotels

We were in Savannah for a wedding at Mansion on Forsyth Park. However, the first two nights we stayed at the Courtyard Savannah Downtown/Historic District — a little friendlier on the pocketbook. There’s not too terribly much to say about the hotel itself or the décor — it’s a standard Courtyard property.  It’s worth noting, though, that it’s pleasantly quiet; our room was next to the elevator and I’m a freakishly light sleeper, but I caught some serious zzz’s. The fitness room is nice, albeit on the small side. But it has everything you really need — bikes, treadmills, ellipticals, free weights, etc. A main selling point of the Courtyard is the location. Many sights to see are within walking distance, like the Savannah History Museum, Juliette Gordon Low’s birthplace, Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), River Street, several picturesque squares and of course, plenty of restaurants. The Courtyard is a great base for exploring Savannah.

Courtyard Savannah lounge
Courtyard Savannah lounge
Photo credit: Mambo’Dan

For our last night in Savannah, we opted to stay at Mansion on Forsyth Park simply for ease since it’s where the wedding and reception were being held. Because it’s easier to stumble to your room drunk than find your way halfway across town. (It’s a whole mile between these two hotels, after all.) With AAA Four-Diamond distinction, Mansion on Forsyth Park is Savannah’s most recognized luxurious boutique hotel. It was renovated and reopened by an art collector and there’s unique artwork displayed throughout the property — fitting for our friends’ wedding since she’s an artsy SCAD alum. Mansion was certainly a change of pace from the Courtyard. The rooms are beautifully appointed with luxurious floor-to-ceiling drapery and sparkly chandeliers. The bed was deliciously comfortable and I can only dream of one day having such a fancy, spacious bathroom. The location is nice with lush Forsyth Park just across the street, though it’s on the opposite end of Savannah from many of the shops, restaurants and riverfront. If you really want to spoil yourself, stay at Mansion.

Mansion on Forsyth Park
Mansion on Forsyth Park
Photo credit: Savannah Sam Photography

Savannah, Georgia Restaurants

Thanks to my friends at Chowhound, I received some most excellent restaurant recommendations on where to eat in Savannah. With just three days, it was hard to narrow it down!

We lunched at Crystal Beer Parlor which was my favorite of all the restaurants we dined at in Savannah. Having been around since the 1930s, Crystal Beer Parlor is Savannah’s second oldest restaurant. It’s a casual, no frills establishment and its walls are adorned with memorabilia from days past. Dubbed “the best in the state,” the Gawgia Peach Cobbler was the highlight of the meal.

Gawgia Peach Cobbler at Crystal Beer Parlor
Gawgia Peach Cobbler at Crystal Beer Parlor

The evening before the wedding, the groom’s family hosted a gathering in the gorgeous grand ballroom at Garibaldi’s. Because it was a big party, there were different tasting stations set up and we sampled a lot of different things from the menu — the favorite being the crab shooter. It was rich and creamy with just the right amount of crab meat. Though, I could’ve taken down more than just a shooter’s worth! Garibaldi’s has such an ambience to it, it would be the perfect spot for a romantic dinner.

Our lunch stop on day two was The Olde Pink House. It oozes Southern charm and feels like a spot for afternoon tea with the ladies — nestled in an 18th century mansion with crisp white tablecloths, pastel-colored walls, sparkly chandeliers. Oh, and it’s pink. My husband scored points for humoring me by agreeing to dine there, but I’m quite certain the Low Country She Crab Soup made it all worth it for him.

The Olde Pink House
The Olde Pink House
Photo credit: Peter Eimon

Before heading out of town on Sunday, we brunched at J. Christopher’s, what I thought to be a cute, neighborhood establishment with just the right amount of kitsch and plenty of interesting artwork on the walls. It’s even housed in a converted garage. Turns out J. Christopher’s is a smallish chain with locations throughout Georgia and Tennessee. Seems to be popular with the locals, though, as there was a bit of a wait to be seated. Counter seats are first come, first serve, though we didn’t have to wait more than 15 minutes for a booth. And worth the wait it was. I’m a fan of savory brunch items, and I especially love eggs benedict, so I opted for the crab cakes benedict. Just the right amount of spice and super flavorful. I have no idea what my husband ate as I was too engrossed in licking my plate clean.

Things to Do in Savannah, Georgia

A weekend is just the right amount of time to get a good taste of Savannah — literally and figuratively. It’s a walkable city so no need to hassle with a rental car. And, it’s relatively compact, so you can walk from one place to another easily. Besides, you’ll want to walk everywhere so you can take in all of the lush, charming city squares.

River Street is loaded with shops, restaurants and… tourists. Still, it’s nice to leisurely stroll along the river. River Street plays host to various events, like this weekend’s Art Fest, and later in the year a seafood festival, blues festival and more.

Georgia Queen
Georgia Queen

Savannah’s Candy Kitchen is a must-visit along River Street. Even if you don’t have a sweet tooth, you’ll find it hard to resist the sweet, buttery goodness of the popular pralines. Savannah’s Candy Kitchen has big round barrels overflowing with saltwater taffy, lollipops and other sugary treats… a bakery case with tray after tray of caramel and candy apples… oh, and perfectly shaped scoops of gelato in every flavor imaginable.

Candy apples at Savannah's Candy Kitchen
Candy apples at Savannah’s Candy Kitchen
Gelato at Savannah's Candy Kitchen
Gelato at Savannah’s Candy Kitchen

Love her or hate her, Paula Deen helped put Savannah on the map. We couldn’t be bothered waiting in line to dine at The Lady & Sons, but we did peruse The Paula Deen Store which has the usual suspects — cookbooks, bakeware, collectibles and aprons with sassy quotes, which made for well-received Christmas gifts.

Paula Deen aprons
Paula Deen aprons

I’m a sucker for hop-on/hop-off tour busses, so we hopped on the Old Savannah Trolley Tour. It took us all over Savannah and we covered sights like Juliette Gordon Low’s birthplace and The Mercer Williams House Museum, from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

The Mercer Williams House Museum
The Mercer Williams House Museum

Savannah is known for its iconic squares and parks. They’re delightfully unavoidable, filled with big, old live oak trees draped in Spanish moss. Each square boasts historic significance.

Savannah square
Savannah square
Photo credit: Paul Hamilton

Colonial Park Cemetery is said to be one of the most haunted cemeteries in Savannah. It was the place of the majority of burials in Savannah for 100 years, and many notable Savannahians are buried there. Haunted tours are available.

Colonial Park
Colonial Park

Savannah is just lovely. Ever since my one and only visit, I’d happily go back. A weekend was nice, but there’s so much more delicious low country fare to indulge in and picturesque sights to see. I’d love to know, though — what’s Savannah’s infatuation with Pabst Blue Ribbon? At nearly every turn there was a PBR sign or glass. Maybe I was just more attuned to it because my dad worked for PBR back in the day (a hipster before it was even hip!), but I’ve never seen quite so much PBR signage in one place.

Pabst Blue Ribbon sign outside Pinkie Master's
Pabst Blue Ribbon sign outside Pinkie Master’s

I’ve done some research (aka, quickly Googled) and all I found is that PBR is the “unofficial” beer of Savannah. Anyone?

Pabst Blue Ribbon glass at Crystal Beer Parlor
Pabst Blue Ribbon glass at Crystal Beer Parlor