The olives in a sunny Italian grove are pressed into a bright oil to be taken anywhere in the world and poured over crusty bread. A few drops of the region’s dark, sweet balsamic vinegar on this bread is a very happy start to any meal, and opening a bottle of Chianti Classico seems like a vacation in itself. It’s almost like the sweeping vistas, patchwork farms, and sunny days of Tuscany can be can be distilled, reduced to a powerful essence.
I had the privilege of visiting the centuries old Castello di Verrazzano this summer. At the castle, my group’s tour guide enthusiastically told us the estate’s history as well as the process of making delicious wine. Then we got to try some of the estate’s own bottled heritage, including a few types of wine in a range of taste and price.
When asked what the best wine in the world is, our friendly guide explained that her grandfather had always told her, “the wine with the highest price and the most awards isn’t necessarily the best wine. It doesn’t matter how much you paid for a bottle, if you’re with good company, in a beautiful place, and the wine tastes good with what you are eating, then that’s the best wine.” How sweet and true!
Looking back at our stay in Tuscany, I love to scroll through my pictures of the loggia at the Villa il Poggiale where we stayed. The idyllic villa sits at the top of a hill, surrounded by olive groves and allows panoramic views of the innumerable, picturesque farms dotted across similar hills as far as the eye can see. At the end of the deep-set front porch is one tall, open air window which seems to frame the best of the countryside for the viewing pleasure of anyone lounging outside.
As nerdy as it is, before my trip, I had watched “Monty Don’s Italian Gardens” on Netflix, eager to see what the world would look like in Italy. On the show, I learned that a trick in gardening is to frame a beautiful view in order to bring it into focus for the visitor, and by concentrating on one part of a vast expanse, the view outside the garden becomes something precious to be admired like artwork.
It seems to me like this framed view, like a good bottle of wine, condenses what is beautiful about the surrounding area and makes you feel warm and happy to experience it…especially when enjoying it surrounded by friends and family and good food.
Hope you have a chance to enjoy the essence of wherever you find yourself this summer, and maybe you too can take a little bottle of Tuscan sun home with you.
I just love Swiss sheep. The mountains are cool, but when every steep hill is dotted with sheep wearing little bells, what could be better?
When I went to Zermatt a few summers ago, I had expected to spend two full days zipping around in the world’s greatest ski resort where the highest slopes that remain snowy all year round.
Instead, I spent most of my first day hanging out with sheep.
We had arrived during the hottest summer in dozens of years…seriously, we met a Swiss couple this summer who were still complaining about Summer 2017.
Summer skiing the next day…not even warm enough for coats
When my little traveling group showed up at our adorable hotel, Le Petit Charme Inn, our friendly host explained that the ski slopes were currently slush, so we should take a hike over the village to get a good view of the Matterhorn. The hike began at the edge of town and passed a few cows lazing in the grass before climbing pretty steeply through a dense forest. Olivia and I were seriously over the hike after five hundred feet that felt like approximately five miles. We sat on A LOT of rocks while Dean (who’s basically Disney’s Tigger in human form) bounced around coaxing us to keep going. That is until Olivia heard the twinkling of sheep bells in the distance.
Everywhere we went in Switzerland, every adorable sheep wore a little bell around its neck to help its shepherd keep track of his flock. The sound of a whole flock of sheep bells softly clinking in a field truly sets the soundtrack for an alpine fairytale.
The sound of bells also means there’s surely a group of cute animals just around the corner, which was definitely the case on our hike! The first tiny farm- livestock farms in Switzerland are about the size of my living room, nothing is Texas size- was just feet from the path, and we hurried to take picture of little black eared lambs next to their slate roofed barn. This was just the first group of sheep, though. We spent the rest of our hike hurrying from one little pasture to the next. Soon, without even remembering how “tired” we had been, we found ourselves above the tree line and with a spectacular view of the Matterhorn brooding over a field.
Olivia, Dean, and I spent some time (maybe the better part of an hour) taking selfies with sheep and absorbing the beautiful mountain-scape around us. We also found that, as always, you never know exactly where you’ll end up on vacation, and cute animals plus beautiful views equal extreme hiking endurance.
Deign Inspiration at Home
Walking around Zermatt after our hike, we were reminded of the afternoon we had spent with sheep and of the town’s inextricable relationship with the countryside around it. Everywhere we looked was wool and lambskin décor. Many of the cafes had draped sheep skins over chairs to keep customers warm as they ate outside, overlooking the (slushilly) snowcapped mountains. The use of these local wool products showcased regional heritage while creating a cozy, inviting look.
Back home, you can recreate this warm Swiss look with sheep skin throws available online or even relatively inexpensively from your local Ikea store.
You can also honor your new lamb friends by using faux lambskin.
Either way, paired with a warm wool blanket (in very Swiss bright red) your house will feel warm and inviting.
I got a chance to experience history come to life at Louisiana's Oak Alley Plantation and Inn.
Oak Alley emerges hazily from a Southern fairy tale, humid and sweet with a strongly graceful beauty. A first drive past the planation allows a glimpse of two even rows of very old live oak trees leading up to a symmetrically columned house peeking under the branches at the end of a brick path. Yet, to spend a few hours here only begins to hint at the depth of its timeless character. The ability to spend slow hours at this property affords it a special feeling I haven’t experienced at any other historical site. Every moment of the girls’ weekend I spent at the Oak Alley Inn with my best friend felt like I had discovered a treasure.
After driving rural miles down the old river road, past other fabled plantations, my friend, Sarah Rice, and I arrived in the wake of a gulf coast evening downpour. The staff greeted us warmly in the Inn’s welcome center near where a wedding party was gathering. One of the friendly employees handed us frosty lemonades and escorted us to the cabin we had booked for the night. She showed us all of the amenities in the essentially perfect little house tucked away on the back of the twenty acre property. My friend and I had chosen the next to last guesthouse on the row of cottages.
The décor felt fresh in a contemporary manner, and the best part of the little house was that it was so clean, there was very little evidence anyone else had ever even stayed there before this weekend. I joked that I could have happily changed my address to Cabin 8 Middle of Nowhere, LA. A rustic fireplace made living area feel cozy, and a large screened porch invited lounging while watching the last of the summer hummingbirds buzzing around the cabin’s feeder. I’ll also mention, the place was bigger than my sister’s apartment in Atlanta.
Yet, the most exciting feature the hostess led us to was a flashlight charging in the bedroom. “You’ll need to bring this flashlight when you explore the property tonight,” she told us.
As soon as my friend and I heard this, we couldn’t wait to take up the invitation to discover what happens after dark on a property with over 200 years of history. The true magic of the Oak Alley Inn is that guests are encouraged to stroll the grounds of the planation twenty-four hours a day, whether or not any public tours are open. After eating a hearty, casual meal at the nearby DJ’s restaurant, my adventurous friend and I hurried back to the cabin to put on sneakers and grab the flashlight.
Not to lie, I had expected to frighten myself a little, imagining what could be lurking in the country fields or even (despite my rational thoughts) what presence from the past may be gliding in the shadows. Yet, the only resident to creep behind us was the tabby cat we had met earlier in the moving and educational slave quarters exhibit.
The long, shadowy walk from our cabin, through the heart of the planation and almost to the Mississippi River beyond was surprisingly comfortable in a way that felt like I was truly getting a chance to live on the property and get to know it for myself without anyone else’s interpretation. As we returned down brick path that had led us under the ancient oaks and to the street where we had caught our first glance at the stately old home, I got the sensation that if I did discover there were vampires to interview in the sticky, Louisiana night air, they truly would be suave and sophisticated and would join us for a stroll before disappearing back across the low-lit brick porch and into the house’s locked front doors. It felt like we weren’t just imagining scenes from movies or the past, we were living them.
Two candles that spark memories of Oak Alley
One of the most memorable things about the immaculate little cabin I stayed in at the Oak Alley Inn was the soft, mint wall color. The tone was fresh yet soothing and lent a relaxing vibe to our cabin.
If you aren’t ready to repaint an entire room, though, this Williams Sonoma candle in the same color can help set a restful tone in your home. I like to enjoy the fresh Lemongrass Ginger scent in the kitchen.
I also can’t help but picture New Orleans gas lamps flickering over columned porches whenever I think of Louisiana nights. Although, this little Lifetime Candle by White River Designs isn’t exactly gas, it’s a different than a regular wax candle and the flame flickers more dramatically when reflected in the oil base.
White River Design
Just remove the little glass ball and add the wick, which is included in the box. The lifetime candle can be refilled over and over to enjoy for a lifetime…or many, just like time spent at Oak Alley.
Creeping along the narrow road, we faced the unnerving reality that the other side of a steep mountain lay between us and a straight road. We had steered ourselves wrong. Well, maybe that way was right. Actually, it was definitely right and then left and then right again about fifty five times. Our rented Peugeot had just tackled half an alp. Olivia (my sister), Dean (her boyfriend), and I had accidentally found ourselves at the apex of Switzerland’s Furka Pass.
This adventure had begun in the picturesque ski town of Zermatt, Switzerland where we had spent the day summer skiing, and our destination was Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle. Dean and I had spent the evening before our road trip choosing what appeared to be the most reasonable route for this road trip. We had eliminated any drives through Lichtenstein and Austria, which would have required the international driver’s licenses we neglected to apply for. Also, a highway passing through Italy before returning to Switzerland also seemed like a poor choice because, “why drive more miles and add more border crossings?” Therefore, we chose what looked like the least complicated path from Zermatt, through Zurich, then up to Germany.
The first leg of the journey wound through miniscule, post card towns where our chief complaint was the wildly fluctuating speed limit. Olivia road shotgun, reading aloud about our destination while I passed snacks of raspberries and tomatoes up to Dean, the driver. After meandering past dozens of chalets with dark wooden balconies and slate roofs, we were finally speeding through what seemed like an endless spring green valley when we noticed a street cutting back and forth up the rocky mountain parallel to our drive. We all agreed that would totally be a perfect road for the Grand Tour guys to tackle in one of their death defying challenges and breathed a sigh of relief when our highway continued without turning to toward that mountain.
Then we noticed the highway had started to climb almost imperceptibly off of the valley floor. Weird, but at least our road was wide and straight…until it wasn’t. We were about a third of the way up the mountain when we realized we were on that Grand Tour road. Our chosen route had switched back to snake steeply up the mountain.
My GPS resembled a bowl of spaghetti noodles, and every few feet, we saw memorial markers near the sheer drop off the side of the single lane road.
To make matters worse, we discovered that what would only make sense as a one lane road was carrying two way traffic. At every one of the dozen or so switchbacks, we had to wait on the far side of the street with only inches between our tires and the cliff while oncoming cars inched past. Visions of Bolivia’s “Death Road” filled my imagination as tension grew in the car.
Olivia and I found Dean’s nervous laughter abrasive in the light of the “life or death” experience we believed we were facing. Despite the temperature drop outside as we neared the snow line, my right hand was sweating profusely from its grip on the door handle, but we finally reached the top. Focusing through Olivia’s and my ceaseless warnings to “watch out for that car!,” and “stay away from this cliff,” Dean had gotten us safely to the glacial peak of an Alp. At that moment, I realized all Olivia and I could really do as passengers was trust that our driver would navigate us carefully to the valley on the other side.
Descent from the mountain was no less stressful, but Dean stayed focused, avoiding cars and cliffs, both inches from the sides of the car and often at the same time. Once we reached flat ground, Dean and I switched drivers, so he could basically rest off the effects of shock and a tension headache in the backseat.
I don’t think any of us will forget this alpine pass, known previously only from action movies, such as James Bond. I also learned the importance of zooming in on Google Maps…or better yet, checking with your hotel’s staff for driving directions. More importantly, I learned the importance of traveling with people you can trust in stressful situations. Travel challenges us as we face the unexpected. You can’t plan for every adventure, and you never know what’s around the next corner, but you can choose your travel companions.
Even if your family is anything like mine and loves Heber Springs just as much as the next Memphian, I’m back in town to tell you…it’s time for a change.
We left the boating and innter tubing behind a few weeks ago & spent a day swimming in the little river between Blanchard Spring and Gunner Pool.
It was so beautiful!
The water is crystal clear. Even the shallowest part in this photo is about a foot deep!
This is Blanchard Spring, whose water feeds the swimmable river.
…but a word about the water…
It is swimmable…it is NOT potable!
Just on the other side of that waterfall is a cave
…a cave full of bats!
The National Forest Service tells me I don’t want to drink bat debris, and I’ll take their word for it, but more about the bats later…
Be sure to bring waterproof shoes!
You’ll also want at least one float (or two life jackets & a pool noodle).There are lots of places to wade into the stream.
If you’re lucky, you can see little fish and huge tadpoles.
If you’re like me, you’ll need to watch out for water snakes. I wish I were kidding. There is even the Mirror Lake fishing pond…which I enjoyed more for the waterfall than the trout.
After swimming & hiking, you can even cool off with the bats.
Well, actually you probably won’t see the bats (thank goodness), but it is perpetually a pleasant 58 degrees in the Blanchard Springs Caverns.
The “battleship,” or “Titanic rock,” as my sister & I like to call it is my favorite formation (excuse the nerdiness). Can you see it in the spotlight? Isn’t that neat?!
The network of lights & pathways through on the Dripstone Trail is truly impressive, and even though I just don’t feel comfortable taking a tour that combines the words “wild” and “cave,” the Wild Cave Tour (without theater lights & meandering pathways) also sounds really fascinating.
So, those are some of the high points from Blanchard Springs!
With Fourth of July only a few weeks away, I just wanted to share with you a new place to celebrate with a short adventure.
Ok, I get that Millington isn’t even outside of Shelby county, and some people even consider it part of Memphis (ahem Justin Timberlake), but still isn’t a vacation any break from ordinary life?
Yes, it is, so here are some of the things my sister & I recommend after our first trip to Millington:
1. Shelby Forest– It’s nice that Memphians have such a large, natural setting so close to home. Point of interest: apparently Shelby Forest is home to one of America’s best disc golf courses (haha, strange).
2. Shelby Forest General Store– The atmosphere is very Bass Pro meets Appalachia. My sister’s boyfriend recommends the ice cream bars.
3. Old Millington Winery– This winery may not be as showy as Arrington in Nashville, but these wines are also delicious, and there is a large deck where you can relax and enjoy your purchase. Also, many weekends, there there is live music. I recommend the blackberry wine, although everyone else loved the Strawberry. We brought home a bottle of very refreshing Delta White…here’s its cheery label!
Every time friends mention they are going to Maine, I feel secondhand excitement just thinking of all the fun they are going to have.
Camden, ME is one of my favorite, if not my favorite place in the US. I’ve been visiting Camden every few years since I was pretty little, and every time I leave, I can’t wait to go back. Once, I told someone that Maine is better than 95 percent of the the places you can visit in the world, and my sister quickly told me that was a low estimate.
Places to stay on a trip to Maine:
I would highly recommend staying in Camden as your home base and balancing your trip with both exploring this little town and taking day trips along the cost. There are also several very cute, very small towns in which to stay. For example, tiny Rockport is very quaint and quiet but still close to everything.
There are obviously no bad neighborhoods to avoid. In town, the Gaylord Camden is very nice, but the place my family and I have loved the most is the 200 year old home in Rockport that we found on Airbnb.
You will definitely need to rent car even if you will be staying primarily in one town. When my family visits Maine, we really spend a lot of time sightseeing and enjoying nature. We frequently take drives or hikes just to see the scenery and find a new lighthouse or adorable roadside store along the way. Maine is very rural and historic, which is a lot of its charm.
Perfect things to do in Camden-
Eat breakfast in one of the little restaurants downtown
Mariners has a patio right over the little waterfall that pours into the harbor and has both beautiful views and pancakes with Maine blueberry jelly, yum!
My sister’s boyfriend claims that blueberry muffins at the Bagel Cafe behind the Lord Camden are the best food he’s ever eaten…to the point that he ate two there and one on the way home… but I love the bagels.
Stroll around the lawn in front of the Public Library. There just isn’t a more peaceful place.
Take a Windjammer Cruise.I highly recommend the Schooner Appledore.The tours are always beautiful, of course.The guys who sail the ships are characters who make the trip fun. You’ll see seals, Camden harbor, and lighthouses!
There are a several tours available. My family really enjoys the short cruises of an hour or two during the day or even at sunset.
Hike or drive to the top of Mount Battie for a panoramic view of Camden’s place along Maine’s jagged coastline and rocky islands.
On fall afternoons, pick apples at a nearby farm.
There are quite a few places to pick apples and many varieties of apples, so just run a google search to see what’s near you.
This activity is best done at the beginning of the trip because you’ll want to want to bring a few apples with you when setting out for each day’s adventures. You may also have a chance to make and enjoy an apple pie if your place has a kitchen.
Tour the little shops in the little downtown. You’ll find everything from quality clothing to souvenirs and nicknacks. The Smiling Cow is a classic.
After dinner (or really anytime), grab an ice-cream at Camden Cone.
Fun in surrounding towns:
Owl’s Head Lighthouse is my very favorite lighthouse.
This is in a very forested promontory with a little museum and gift store in the old keeper’s quarters, and you can hike down to a little rocky beach to one side.
In Rockland, ME
Walk out to the Breakwater Lighthouse.
This is kind of a trek. It’s located a little over a quarter mile walk out in a bay over a breakwater of large rocks.
In Rockland, ME
While there, also check out the Samoset Hotel.
My family loves to visit Art Galleries.Farnsworth Museum–
The main museum in Rockland houses a collection of contemporary and historic American artists with a specific wing dedicated to the works of the Wyeth family.
The Farnsworth also owns the bleak and weathered Olson House in Cushing, ME. This home inspired and is featured in many of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings, including Christina’s World.
Many painters have been inspired by Maine, so even small galleries are filled with great art. My favorite of these is the Wiscasset Bay Gallery, which just happens to be just steps away from a wonderful antique store and what is said to be Maine’s best lobster rolls, Red’s Eats.
A trip to Maine is essentially a challenge to eat as many lobster rolls as humanly possible. There are many awesome places to eat this delicacy. Camden’s best restaurant, Cappy’s, is out of business, so my family is still on a quest to find a replacement. The best lobster rolls are served in roadside stands by local fishermen, not in restaurants. Don’t be shocked, though, if they charge restaurant prices…lobster is lobster, but it is so worth the price. Lobster rolls here are the best you will find anywhere in the world.
Recently, the best lobster rolls I have had were at Libby’s Market in Brunswick, ME. Don’t be surprised that the little dining area is in what looks like a regular gas station. The rolls are very good and fresh. The owner and his wife catch the lobster themselves.
A Little Farther Away from Camden:
Go to Acadia National Park!
The place comes alive for leaf peepers in fall. Bar Harbor is a nice place to visit near the park entrance.
Visit the L.L.Bean Flagship Store with the giant Bean Boot out front. L.L.Bean was founded in Maine, promotes an outdoor lifestyle, and supports the National Park Foundation…could there be a better company?
Visit the other awesome outlet stores. The Patagonia outlet in Freeport, just across the street from L.L.Bean and the Barbour outlet in Kittery can’t be beat.
For tourists, Maine basically wouldn’t exist without ships. Ships bring in lobster and sight seeing scooters sail through almost every bay. Therefore, nothing captures the essence of Maine at home more than ship decor.
You can go classic by purchasing an oil painting from a local gallery,
Or you can get a little kitsch with an antique mobile.
Bonus points if your mobile is next to a picture of Owls Head
I chose to waste extra hours of vacation time in order to spend time by myself in a city that didn’t particularly interest me.
To explain… when booking plane tickets for my trip to ski in Park City, I had the option of flying into Salt Lake City at 9pm the day before skiing or at 11:30am on the same day. I wasn’t particularly interested in Salt Lake City, and I value my vacation days like they’re made of gold, but in the interest of not being exhausted the next day, I chose the earlier flight.
This meant that I would be spending most of the day entertaining myself in what I imagined to be a featureless desert waiting on my sister, her boyfriend, and his brother to arrive from ATL around 7pm. So I did some research. At first, I was sold (by my sister’s boyfriend) on spending the day seeing the Bonneville Salt Flats. It didn’t take me long to decide that was a LOT of driving for minimal reward, especially if the flats were possibly flooded, which is highly probable in late March. I really had wanted to see this place where land speed records are routinely set, and I was super intrigued by the fact that in some places, the salt is up to 5 feet deep…how surreal! However, the flats are about an hour and a half from the airport, which would have limited my time elsewhere, and if there’s any rain, then there’s no driving to be done out there.
Instead, I made myself a nice little itinerary that I managed to follow with time to spare.
I knew it was going to be a strange and magical day when I had to stop just after the rental car exit for a tumble weed to pass.
First, I wanted to see what I termed “The Giant Mormon Temple.”
I’ve heard the downtown called the Vatican of Mormonism, which is pretty apt. Also, my own observation was that this is the cleanest state capital I’ve ever seen.
Ok, so confession, this landmark was a little lost on me. It wasn’t as gigantic as I expected, and it’s not as embellished as some cathedrals I’ve seen, but I’m sure I would love it if I were Mormon, so I’m not bashing it. Also fascinating fact: inside the building isn’t just one large room, like a cathedral. Instead, a visitor enters from the basement then progresses through a series of symbolic rooms, each at different, ascending levels, until the person reaches the top floor.
I also saw the State Capital building…very stately, indeed.
Then because I generally appreciate nature more than cities, I went to Antelope Island.
At first, I was a little concerned that the island home of bison and antelopes wouldn’t be worth the drive, but a nice local lady at Utah’s version of Kroger assured me it was worth the trip.
Note: Getting to antelope island did not take as long as Google thought it would. Google seemed to be calculating distance to the very end of the island loop, which is not necessary because the animals can be seen even near the beginning of the several mile loop.
Note: There is a $10 entrance fee for most cars, but it was well worth the price.
After paying the small few, I crossed a causeway across the Salt Lake. I am a complete stranger to this environment, was immediately awestruck.
It was a very still day, and the clouds reflecting on the Salt Lake gave a sense of surreal, horizonless vastness. I had heard of this effect on flooded salt flats in Bolivia and knew that it was also possible on the salt flats I had passed up, but I was astounded to unexpectedly stumble upon this mirage.
The view directly behind the pastel, horizonless moonscape was equally majestic with the mountains rising beside the lake becoming more and more blanketed in spring snow as I drove.
Despite the breathtaking views, I knew I would be a little bummed if I didn’t see the bison or antelope I had driven to see. Don’t worry, though. Unlike looking for wildlife in many parklands, the bison and antelope are very easy to find once you arrive on the island at the end of the causeway.
I felt like I had stepped back into the old west.
I took most of the drive around the island and had to stop several times for bison who were wandering across the street. It was truly great.
I also spotted a group of antelope, but they were a little farther away.
I spent a few hours driving and photographing then drove back to Salt Lake City a little before rush hour with very easy traffic.
Note: Salt Lake City is serious about their HOV lanes, or maybe I was just aware of this in contrast to Memphis’s willy nilly monitoring of the HOV.
Once I got back to SLC, I ate at Settebello, the pizza place I had previously found online. I parked in a centrally located garage and felt safe walking the ten minutes to the restaurant.
The pizza and wine were great and are my favorite things to eat on vacation, but Red Iguana Mexican restaurant closer to the center of downtown also looked very good.
Note: servings of wine are limited to smaller glasses because of Mormon views on alcohol.
After dinner, I chose to walk to the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. It was pay what you wish and was rather small. I wouldn’t say it’s a can’t miss museum at all, but if you have a few minutes to kill in downtown Salt Lake City, it’s a decent stop. The temporary exhibit while I was there was Desire Lines, which I learned is a path formed in nature by erosion, humans, or animals that most often represents the shortest or most easily navigated route between origin and destination. This was an interesting theme to reflect on after nice to reflect on after my earlier trek through the rugged landscape with bison, antelope, and other tourists.
After the museum, I strolled through the very nice indoor shopping mall (with an indoor stream and an Athleta store) next to Temple Square before driving back to the airport.
Overall, I was very pleasantly surprised by Salt Lake City. The most notable positive point was that I felt very safe walking all over downtown as a single, female traveler. I also enjoyed that every part of the city seemed well maintained. Moreover, everyone I encountered was very polite and friendly and glad to give directions. All of these things were very refreshing after traveling from Memphis, where safety, friendliness, and cleanliness are often hard to find. I will, however, follow these positive reviews with the opinion that I probably did everything that interested me in Salt Lake City in one day and that it is a great layover city and not a true destination city for me…my desire line stretched from the airport through the city and to the ski slopes beyond.