Category Archives: Lifestyle

Berkshire Beauty

Recently, I visited one of my favorite places, The Berkshires, with two of my favorite people, my parents, Bev and Tom. My sister, Joanna, and her wonderful family also joined in on the fun. If you have not visited the Berkshires, it is well worth a trip.  Rolling green hills, hydrangeas in bloom everywhere, stately homes, lots of ladies wearing linen. How can one go wrong?

The reason for our trip was to hear John Williams conduct his music at Tanglewood. Founded in 1940, Tanglewood is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer time home and a place where talented young performers come to study with the best.  It’s also a fabulous concert venue with an incredible season. Only at Tanglewood can you get your honky-tonk on with Dolly Parton and then sit in awe as Yuja Wang plays Rapsody in Blue.

Oh yes, and then there’s Wheatleigh…

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Welcome to Wheatleigh…where all your dreams come true.

Henry H. Cook built Wheatleigh in 1893 as a wedding present for his daughter, Georgie, who married a Spanish Count (in Girl World that’s called winning). Inspired by a 16th century Florentine palazzo most of Wheatleigh’s materials and many of the craftsmen came from Italy.  The verdant exteriors of Wheatleigh were designed by none other than Frederick Law Olmsted. Georgie and her Spanish Count spent six weeks a year there, living in luxury, cared for by a staff of forty.

Today, a royal pedigree is not required to visit Wheatleigh.  Even commoners can enjoy Wheatleigh’s fabulous restaurant, spectacular hotel, and gorgeous grounds (in The CCC’s world that’s called winning).

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Wheatleigh awaits you.

I first discovered Wheatleigh over a decade ago with my good friend, Kiki. I have many happy memories there.  I was thrilled to create some new ones with Bev and Tom and my niece, Claire. We enjoyed a sumptuous lunch at The Library.  If you don’t have a lot of time lunch at The Library is a perfect way to enjoy the property and pretend you are a lady of the Gilded Age.

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A girl never forgets her first cheese plate. Claire enjoys a triple-cream.

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All God’s creatures love Wheatleigh.
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The CCC schooling Claire in the finer things… (Photo by Bev)

After lunch it was time to head back to the real world and dinner! We met up with Joanna, her husband, Drew, and my nephew, Jason at Bistro Zinc. This is a lovely French bistro with true “Berkshire buzz”.  You never who you’ll meet at Bistro Zinc: artists, musicians, singers, ladies in linen???

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Jason and Claire enjoying the buzz at Bistro Zinc.
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The Black Swan Inn on Laurel Lake. Our home away from home.

After dinner we headed to our hotel, The Black Swan Inn.  The Inn, located in Lee, is five minutes away from Tanglewood and downtown Lenox. It’s a very comfortable hotel with super nice staff.  Joanna, Drew, and Jason stayed a bit down the road at the adorable LakeHouse Inn. Both hotels are perfect places to rest up before you get your Tanglewood groove on.

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Drew, Joanna, Bev, & Tom (l to r) enjoying our picnic supplied by Tanglewood and Guido’s Fresh Marketplace – an incredible grocery store well worth a stop. (You can rent chairs at Tanglewood if you need to.)

While you can purchase tickets for seats inside the concert hall, picnicking on the lawn pre-concert is a perfect way to enjoy the Berkshire beauty and each other.

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A proud auntie with her wonderful nephew, Jason.  How did I get so lucky to have such delightful nephews and nieces?
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The grounds at Tanglewood are never so crowded one can’t enjoy a game of catch.
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Shhhh….it’s time for the music (and magic) to begin.

The CCC’s San Francisco Favorites #7: Chilly Summer Days

Recently, I was complaining to my friend, Brian Yee, about the (always) unseasonably cold San Francisco summers. Brian, my wise and kind friend of almost 30 years, replied, “you do realize that rest of the country is in the middle of a horrible heat wave. I mean the entire country is sweltering.”

“So, I should stop complaining about my breezy, 60-degree days?”

“Yes.”

Since pity parties really aren’t the CCC’s style, I put on my current favorite cashmere sweater, grabbed the Nikon, and headed out to embrace the wind and fog.

SF Chilly Summer Perk #1: Cashmere is always appropriate.

6 Sutro Cliffs

There’s no better place to experience the SF summer chill than Ocean Beach. It’s always 5-10 degrees cooler than the rest of the city and the sun is generally occluded by the champagne air a.k.a the fog (champagne always makes everything better). On this day, I decided to explore the ruins of Sutro Baths and Land’s End, the western most part of the city.

But first, breakfast.

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SF Chilly Summer Perk #2: Hot Chocolate.

I like Louis’. Get there early and grab a seat the counter. Order Bill’s Special (scrambled eggs with cheese and bacon on an English muffin) and a cup of hot chocolate and whipped cream*. The breakfast of champions.

*Even for the CCC, 9am is too early for a cocktail.

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The ruins of Sutro Baths.

Adolph Sutro, one of SF’s original entrepreneurs, believed he could build a better salt water swimming experience than the ocean itself. In 1896, Sutro Baths opened for all to enjoy. The entrance fee was kept purposely low so that folks of all income levels could enjoy the 7 pools, ice skating rink, museum, and amphitheater.  Everyone wore the same itchy wool bathing suits so there would be no distinction between wealthy and less well-off guests (a man after my own lefty heart!). People would spend entire days at the baths swimming, relaxing, eating, and enjoying each other’s company. Eventually, and several owners later, the baths closed in 1966 – too expensive to maintain.  During the baths’ demolition a “mysterious” (read: arson) fire burned the last of this magnificent structure to the ground.

Now, the baths’ ruins are a perfect way to spend a day, climbing around, hiking up the cliffs, taking in the view.

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The ruins are a perfect place for an amature photographer to get artsy.

To see a wonderful slide show of what the baths looked like in their heyday visit: The Cliff House Project.

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There’s even a spooky tunnel to explore.
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On Sutro Cliffs.  SF Chilly Summer Perk #3 – No unnecessary sun exposure.
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The Land’s End Trail.  Perfect isolation.

Land’s End is a wonderful place to go when you want to be by yourself but don’t want to be alone. Pairs and groups of friends, families, and tourists keep you company along the way. It’s heartening to hear the snippets of others’ conversations as I walk.

“I told her not to call him back.”

“I think I am going to train for a sprint triathlon.” “That’s great!”

“Let’s take a selfie! Let’s take a selfie!”

Human beings enjoying a beautiful place together. Lovely.

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Little boy with Labyrinth. Could there be a more quintessentially SF moment?
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I love the view from Land’s End. All at once, I feel connected with the universe’s past, present, and future.

The Golden Gate is one of the most seismically active areas in the world. Formed over the course of 200 million years, the rugged coastline is the result of the North American and Pacific Plates rubbing against each other pushing the serpentine and sandstone rocks from deep within the sea floor to the ocean’s surface. These two plates, part of the San Andreas Fault Zone, are always active moving approximately 1 inch per year (earthquakes anyone?).

Land’s End is a fantastic place to appreciate the geologic drama of the Golden Gate.

(To learn more, check out this great paper and guided tour.)

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I LOVE Cypress Trees!  Some day I will take a photo that expresses what these trees mean to me.  Until then, you will have to suffer through my drafts.

What a wonderful day!  Who needs sun and 80 degree temperatures, when you can have champagne air and hot chocolate?

Cuba y Dos Chicos – Parte 2

Fusterlandia

No trip to Havana is complete without a visit to Fusterlandia or “Fuster” as the locals say. Fusterlandia is the dream realized of Jose Fuster. Located in the Jaimanitas neighborhood of Havana, Fusterlandia is a Cuban mash-up of Gaudi, Picasso, and Brancusi with dose of magical realism thrown in for good measure. It’s completely crazy, completely beautiful, and completely wonderful.

Fuster moved to Jaimanitas 30 years ago.  His house, at the time, was a tiny wood-framed structure he transformed into an experiential fantasy via ceramic tiles and some very clever construction. Slowly over three decades he incorporated his neighbors’ houses and the surrounding streets into his fantasy. Today, Fusterlandia is a place where one could never tire of living as there is always something to new see and to feel.

Fuster has, like the song says, a true alma libre. (Hint: press play.)

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The courtyard of Fuster’s home. When he’s not working on his art, Fuster stays in shape doing laps in his endless pool.
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Matt and EM in front of one of Fuster’s many guajiros or peasants. As a teenager Fuster worked as a literacy volunteer helping educate many rural folk who prior to Castro’s revolution had little access to formal education. Today Cuba boasts a 97% literacy rate.
Havana Fusterlandia Castro and Che by Andy
Castro and Che on the yacht, Granma.

While Fuster’s depiction of the revolutionaries on the Granma is tranquil, the actual 1956 voyage from Mexico was not. Led by Castro, 82 men intending to overthrow the Batista regime crammed on a vessel built for 12.  The journey did not go as planned. A mile off the Cuban shore, stuck on a sandbar, the fighters abandoned the Granma and headed for the hills. Sixty men were killed by Batista forces while Castro and Che Guevara hid in the mountains.  Not about to be forgotten, Castro used the media to his advantage by arranging an interview with NYT reporter, Herbert Matthews. The rag-tag army presented itself to Matthews as a lean, mean fighting machine and Castro its fearless leader. The ruse worked. Matthews wrote a flattering profile of the revolutionary hero and his effort. Cuba and the US (well, some in the US) fell in love with Castro.

Once again, I find myself in the tourist’s conundrum of Cuba: fun and profound.

NOTE – Getting to Fusterlandia:  Make sure you say, “Jaimanitas” and “Fuster” (not Fusterlandia) to your taxi driver. Cubans don’t call it Fusterlandia.  It is about 25 minutes from central Havana and taxis in Jaimanitas are not easy to come by.  If possible, arrange to have the same driver collect you.

We did not do this and had hard time getting a taxi back. We jumped in the first taxi we saw, without agreeing FIRST on a price back to the city center and ended paying quite a bit more than we should have.

NOTE – Taxis: Make sure you have small bills as Cuban taxi drivers do not make change for touristas. If you agree on a fare that is 8 CUC and you only have 10 CUC, guess what? The driver will not have 2 CUC to give you. SO, if you are stickler about that kind of thing have plenty of 1 and 2 CUC notes, otherwise be prepared to round up!

Trinidad

Because we only had a week, I used Frommer’s recommended 7-day itinerary to organize our trip. Trinidad was our next stop about 3 hours by car from Havana. Trinidad is a UNESCO world heritage site known for its well-preserved Spanish colonial architecture. While I believe I took some of my best photos ever in Trinidad, I found the place underwhelming.  Maybe because it was SO HOT and full of tourists, like us, wandering around asking themselves, “why did we come here?”.

NOTE – The Cuban Sun: Bring a small umbrella or parasol to shield you from the sun. It’s too hot to wear a hat and an umbrella provides most welcome solar protection (all the Cubanas use them).

NOTE – Guide Books: Lonely Planet Cuba is the best. Frommer’s is a good back-up though.

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La Plaza Mayor en Trinidad.
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Taberna la Botija. Some of the better food we had in Cuba. They serve a selection of “representative varietals of pork” (it’s hard to be a vegetarian in Cuba).  Interesting decor as well.

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If I were to return here, I would focus on the natural beauty of the area. Trinidad, located at the foot of the Escambray Mountains, has some great day hikes leading to cooling waterfalls and swimming holes. We did the hike to Javira Waterfall in Parque el Cubano.  It was the perfect antidote to the penetrating Cuban sun.

Trinidad Parque Nacional Matt Jumping
Matt looking graceful jumping from a 30-foot ledge.

I have not jumped into a body of water off anything higher than a pool ledge since I was teenager. Nice to know I can still do it!

 

Of course, Andy and Matt make it look easy. Ahhh…the joys of being twenty-something.

 

After day of hiking, swimming, and sweating, we were ready for a cocktail and some internet access.  Unlike the rest of the world, Wifi connectivity in Cuba is not ubiquitous.  The WWW can only be entered via a “tarjeta de navegacion” or nauta card.  A nauta card costs 2 CUC for 1 hour of internet time and you must be near a Wifi hotspot. As a tourist most hotels allow you to purchase nauta cards and use their Wifi. If you are a Cuban then you must find a Wifi hotspot to use your card. Whenever you see large groups of people standing together, mesmerized by their screens, you have encountered a Cuban Wifi hotspot. (Remember, Cuba did not have cellular phones until 2008. Another modernization on the part of Raul Castro.)

If you are a tourist not seeking an authentic Cuban Wifi experience, then the place to go in Trinidad is the Iberostar Grand Hotel. Beautifully appointed in a Moorish-Spanish style with a splash of continental flare, Matt asked as we entered the lobby of the Iberostar, “why couldn’t we have stayed here?” My thoughts exactly. Like auntie, like nephew.

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The Iberostar Grand Hotel Bar – a refuge from the heat. Great mojitos, lovely live music, not too terrible food and all the internet access a young gent could want. Photo by Andy.
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Matt takes a break from the Internet. Andy remains focused.

Although Trinidad was not the colonial gem we had hoped, it did have a nightclub in a cave. For the most part, I have aged-out of nightclubs (too late, too loud, too young) but I could not pass up the opportunity to dance to Cuban reggeaton in a cave.

Disco Ayala did not disappoint. And dance I did.

The Beach (finally):

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Our private beach at the Melia Buenavista. Photo by Matt.

After 5 days of fun and profundity, it was time for relaxation on Cayo Santa Maria, one of Cuba’s world famous beaches. I read that Cuban beaches are some of the most beautiful and I can happily confirm that is true. The water is so pure! I did not wear sunscreen when I went swimming because I did not want to be the first American tourista to cloud Cuba’s blue topaz seas.  I took a long walk on the beach. There was no trash! Fantastic snorkeling was a short swim away.

Our hotel, the Melia Buenavista, was fabulous. Brand new. 105 rooms. Adults only.  And it was “todo inclusivo” meaning all our food and beverages were included in the cost. Our perfect beach retreat was also reasonably priced. 🙂

NOTE – Cash Only Cuba: Cash is the only way Americans can travel in Cuba as US debit and credit cards are not accepted.  Change US currency into euros or pounds before you go. We did not and there is a 10% service charge for exchanging USD not applied to euros or pounds. Contrary to a pervasive and popular myth, Cubans don’t love USD. If you want to use dollars to pay for your accommodations your host or hotel will add the 10% fee to your bill. If you do bring USD make sure it’s in small bills ($20s, $10s, $5). We only brought $100s and this made paying in dollars (when we wanted to) difficult.  Finally, budget carefully and bring more money that you think you will need.  It’s stressful to worry about running out of cash. Who needs that while drinking daiquiris on the beach!

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Sunset over Cayo Santa Maria. Heaven.
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Selfies on the beach.  So lucky to have Matt in my life!

After 7 days of Cuban adventure, Andy, Matt, and I boarded the 6am flight from Havana to Mexico City. While I was sad to say good-bye to my twenty-something travel buddies, I was elated to have taken one of my dream trips with them. Thank you for a wonderful time, Matt and Andy. It’s nice to know there’s a little twenty-something still left in me.

Cuba y Dos Chicos – Parte 1

For many years, my wonderful nephew, Matt, and I wanted to visit Cuba. (And yes, we wanted to see it “before the change”) With President Obama, the House of Chanel, and Carnival Cruises all making their way to the jewel in the Caribbean crown, we decided there was no time like the present. It was a fantastic trip, made all the better by our delightful traveling companion and Matt’s good friend, Andy.  In addition to drinking a lot rum or “ron” as the Cubanos say, we saw much of the unblemished Cuban countryside, swam in the Caribbean’s most pristine waters, and had a lot of laughs.  As much as it was fun (how could traveling with two adorable, twenty-something gents not be fun?), our trip was also profound. Cuba’s storied relationship with colonialism, capitalism, and communism was always in the background  and “the change” seemed both right now and very far away.

Let’s get back to the fun. Press play to begin. 

La Habana

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El Malecon, La Habana

We arrived in Havana on a sunny Saturday afternoon via Mexico City. Traveling to and from Cuba was surprisingly stress-free. I even had my passport stamped!  I recommend traveling with AreoMexico. AeroMexico was highly organized and had decently-priced tickets. Perfect for the American Turista.

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A view from our casa particular, Casa Xiomy in Habana Vieja.

For most of our time in Cuba, we stayed in casas particulares.  These are Cubans’ private homes and apartments. They are inexpensive and for $3-$5 more a day provide breakfast (generally the best meal going in Cuba). They also offer the tourist a tiny view into the life of the average Cuban. We arranged our casas via ReservasCubas, a booking agency run by Katia Ferrer. Katia was excellent – helpful and reliable. The apartments we stayed in were clean with private bathrooms, air conditioning, and (mostly) comfortable beds.

NOTE: When you book with Katia, be sure to ask for the nicest accommodations and private apartments otherwise you might end up staying folks you don’t know and, even worse, sharing a bathroom with them – something the CCC cannot abide by on vacation!

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The view from Casa Xiomy.
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A street in Habana Vieja

For first-time tourists, Old Havana or Habana Vieja is the place to stay. The neighborhood is centrally located and it’s easy to get everywhere on foot (a good way to experience Havana). It’s also a neighborhood in transition.  Old Havana’s long neglected architectural beauties are slowly but surely being restored and revitalized.  This revitalization is the brain child of Eusebio Leal Spengler, the city historian of Havana.

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Plaza de San Francisco de Asis en Habana Vieja – A Habaguanex Redux

In 1994, Spengler founded Habaguanex as a private holding company to earn hard currency through tourism and re-invest those funds in historical preservation and urban regeneration efforts. Habaguanex took advantage of the Cuban government’s renewed interest in tourism after the fall of the Soviet Union and during the “Special Period in Time of Peace” – a period that was neither special nor peaceful for the Cuban people. Today, Habaguanex’s annual income, from its 20 tourist hotels and 30 museums, is approximately US$160 million. The company divides these funds between social projects, like schools, and continued restoration efforts, like Habana Vieja.

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On my next trip to Havana, I am planning to stay in one Habaguanex’s beautiful hotels, like the Hotel Conde de Villanueva. So much for the casas particulares 😉

Havana Old and New

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Classic Cars near Parque Central. Photo by Andy.

Yes. You must take a ride in one of Cuba’s ubiquitous vintage American asphalt boats. It’s kitschy tourist fun but also profound as you, once again, collide into Cuba’s past and present.  After Castro’s communist revolution in 1959 the US initiated an embargo against Cuba. El Bloqueo as it is known in Cuba is the longest running trade embargo in modern history. If one owned a car pre-Bloqueo, one could keep it. Otherwise no new cars for Cuba. Owning a car in Cuba is critical as public transportation is inadequate nationwide. When used as a taxi, one’s 1951 Chevrolet provides an important source of income and access to the peso convertible or CUC – the currency used by all tourists and pegged to the US dollar.

Cubans employed by the government, like physicians and nurses, are paid in the peso cubano or CUP and earn about $30/month. The CUP is worth much less than the CUC (1 CUC=25 CUP; 1CUP=0.40USD). There are stores that sell goods using the CUP but many consumer goods like computers are priced at the CUC making them inaccessible to most Cubans.  That’s life in a two-tiered economy where a taxi driver can make more money than a doctor.

There is a light at the end of this two-tiered tunnel, as Raul Castro, who assumed power from his brother in 2008, slowly and steadily modernizes the Cuban economy.  In 2010, Cubans were allowed to own private businesses like taxis, casas particulares, and paladares. In 2013, Cubans were allowed to purchase foreign cars. Additionally, Raul Castro is working towards doing away with the CUP.

And you thought you were just going for a silly ride in a kitschy car. It’s the two-tiered tourist experience of Cuba: fun and profound.

Havana City Tour in A chevy

In Alejandro’s Chevy along el Malecon.

We found our vintage kitsch and most charming driver, Alejandro, at the Plaza de San Francisco.  We negotiated a price of 20CUC for a 45 minute ride.  When I mentioned something about Jose Marti (it helps to speak a little Spanish and to know who Jose Marti is), a 45-minute tourist jaunt turned into a 90-minute personalized tour of Alejandro’s Havana. 

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Alejandro also let us drink Bucaneros (Cuba’s answer to malt liquor) in his precious automobile.  Cuba, may you never discover open-container laws.

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Entering La Fabrica. Cuba’s newest cultural institution.

While vintage cars are a direct link to Cuba’s past, La Fabrica de Arte Cubano is a pathway to its future. Founded by X Alfonso in a former cooking oil factory, La Fabrica is a massive space where Cuba’s artistic and youth cultures coalesce and where the American tourist can marvel at it all.  My recommendation is you go the first week-end of your trip (it’s open Thursday through Sunday), get there early (it opens at 8pm), and stay late (it closes at 3am). It’s a cultural party you don’t want to miss.

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Cuba. Open for Business.
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The CCC making friends and enjoying the art.

Havana Eating, Drinking, and Smoking (well, really just drinking and smoking)

We heard it’s getting better but the food in Havana and Cuba in general is not so good. However, it is fun to eat at a paladar and witness Cuban enterprise, industry, and creativity at work. One of our favorite spots was Cafe Laurent, a beautiful penthouse transformed into a restaurant. Located in Vedado, a tony neighborhood where American gangsters once lived and played (among other things), Cafe Laurent served up pretty good albondigas, even better mojitos, and a knock-out view.

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The view from Cafe Laurent. One of my favorites from our trip. Miami-style high rises, Soviet concrete blocks, and box-like apartment buildings crumbling together.
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The real food groups of Cuba: Rum, Coffee, and Tobacco.

I am not just saying this because I am the California Cocktail Camper but the best way to experience Cuba is through its rum, coffee, and tobacco with lots of live music thrown in. One of our favorite places was the Hotel Conde de Villanueva (where I want to stay on my next visit). The hotel is home to the one of the world’s most famous cigar shops, La Casa del Habano. It’s a perfect place to sit, drink, smoke, talk, drink, smoke, talk, sit. They also had very decent ladies room.

NOTE: Public restrooms in Cuba. Hmmm…Not always the cleanest, you have to pay to use them (usually just a peso), and they are often short on the amenities like toilet paper.  The CCC’s recommendation: always carry kleenex, small change, and hand sanitizer in your bag.

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Matt and Andy.  Cigar smoking is serious.
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At La Casa del Habano. Where I rekindled my affection for espresso.
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Matt and his adoring auntie enjoying some aged Havana Club ron at The Havana Club. The Havana Club band was fantastic and it’s rumored that the CCC did some salsa dancing.

An excellent book on the history of Cuban ron is Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba by Tom Gjelten.  Recommended by Andy, Gjelten tells Cuba’s history by way of the Bacardi family and its rum empire. It’s great preparation for your trip to Cuba and you will certainly learn who Jose Marti is!

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At La Lluvia del Oro – the CCC’s quintessential happy place: a bar, an afternoon cocktail, fabulous company, live music, warm weather, and a Cuban cigarette. (Shhh…don’t tell her doctor.)

Fancy Lady Road Trip!

Recently, I had the pleasure of hosting my delightful niece, Claire, during her winter break. Claire is one of my favorite travel buddies so it seemed only fitting we take a Fancy Lady Road Trip.  The trip was also part of my clandestine effort to convince Claire to come to CA for college. (Go West, Young Woman!)

On a sunny Sunday morning we left SF for points southward. Our first stop: Santa Barbara then heading north on Route 1 to San Luis Obispo and San Simeon – some of the most golden parts of our golden state. Thanks to the much needed rain, Highway 101 was verdant with all kinds of green we have not seen in a long while.

All road trips mandate that junk food is to be eaten.  I love Claire for many reasons and a new one was our mutual love of animal crackers and sour cream and onion Pringles – a perfect blend of salt, sugar, and crunch.

1 on the road

The background of this photo is a part of a mosaic along the beach in Santa Barbara documenting the life and history of the Chumash people. Tens of thousands of Chumash or First Peoples lived in relationship with the land and the sea on 7000 square miles from Malibu to Paso Robles.  A sophisticated and egalitarian people, Chumash women could occupy positions of leadership as well as the men. We all know how the story of the Chumash ends: European colonization, religion, and bacteria were not kind to the Chumash. In the 1700-1800s the community was all but destroyed. Today, happily, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians is revitalizing itself and the surrounding area through the very successful Chumash Casino Resort. (We did not visit the resort.) Wherever I travel in California, it’s important to me to acknowledge that my California Cocktailing lifestyle did not come for free.

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Santa Barbara is one of the most beautiful places in California.  Rugged mountains to the east, a sapphire sea to west. It’s a place where just walking outside puts you in a good mood – how perfect for tourists!  Claire and I stayed at the Mason Beach Inn, literally one block away from the beach and very close to State Street, the main shopping and tourist drag.  (HINT: Ask for a room on the second floor – cathedral ceilings and no foot traffic above.)  We started each morning with breakfast al fresco at Rebar.  I rediscovered my love of cappuccinos and the breakfast sandwich. Rebar’s egg, cheese, bacon, and avocado on a freshly baked roll is not to be missed.

3 Inspiration Point

No SoCal experience is complete without a hike in the mountains.  It’s such a strange experience to be in “the mountains” while being so close to urbanity. In this instance the mountains were the Santa Ynez, located within the Los Padres National Forest.  We did the popular 3.5-mile hike to Inspiration Point.  A nicely marked trail with a gradual incline takes you to, well, Inspiration Point – where, at 1800 feet you feel like the queen of all you survey.   I lost my mind (a little bit) over how green everything was.  (HINT: Come early. Parking is on the street and very limited.)

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The wildflowers along the trail filled us with joy.
5 Casa Blanca
Dinner at Casa Blanca was delish but being with my beautiful niece was the best part of this day.

A day of hiking and shopping merits a pig out, Mexican-style. Casa Blanca on State Street fit the bill. Very good Mexican and even better Margaritas.  For shopping, State Street has it all – high and low end.  Check out Barbara’s Consignment Concierge. I found a gorgeous Thomas Wylde silk scarf that I will wear for the rest of my life.

6 Santa Barbara Views
Views of Beautiful SB. What a wonderful place to ponder what life will bring next.

We said good-bye to “The Place Where Nothing Bad Ever Happens” aka Santa Barbara heading northwards on Route 1. Next Stop: Hearst Castle at San Simeon. As with hiking, the quintessential SoCal visit also includes a drive along the PCH. Running from San Diego to Mendocino County, Route 1 is a classic California beauty. I love thinking, “Wow! I am at the edge of America.” Awe-inspiring.

7 Hearst Castle
The grounds of Hearst Castle are an amateur photographer’s dream. Everywhere you look there is something to point your lens at!

Hearst Castle is also a must-do. La Cuesta Encantada was the architectural love-child of newspaper man, William Randolph Hearst, and architect, Julia Morgan.  Together, they created a fantasy castle of 165 rooms, 127 acres of gardens and two over-the-top swimming pools.  One interesting fact about Hearst Castle was that Julia Morgan designed all the buildings to be seismically sound – a woman ahead of her time.

8 Madonna Inn
…and, speaking of fantasy castles, ladies and gentlemen – The Madonna Inn

 

The Swiss Chalet-Baroque-Gone-Bad-Christmas 365-Rock Cave stylings of The Madonna Inn will surely please even the fanciest of fancy lady road trippers. Where else can you wash your hands in your own personal stream (press play on the video above)? Where else will you find a room made of boulders and decorated with daisies? Where else can you a enjoy a prime rib dinner (it was delicious and no 2AM indigestion) in a hot pink leather banquette? No where but The Madonna Inn. It’s worth a visit. Truly, the cherry on top moment of our road trip!

10 EM and Claire
A selfie on the beach: Claire, with her deliriously proud auntie, The CCC.

Thank you for a most wonderful Fancy Lady Road Trip, Claire! I can’t wait for our next West Coast Adventure! Next stop, UC Santa Barbara??? 😉

The CCC’s San Francisco Favorites #5: Hog Island Oyster Farm with Sandy and Jim

Numerically speaking, this San Francisco Favorite is #5 but really the Hog Island Oyster Farm in Marshall, CA is the CCC’s Number One San Francisco Favorite.   Located 50 miles north of SF in beautiful Marin County, the Hog Island Oyster Farm is most special to me.  In my two decades of living in San Francisco, no place holds so many joyful, delicious, and occassionally silly memories. (Ask my husband, Brian, about the time I offended a lady over the oysters she ate in Las Vegas. I didn’t mean to be snooty.)  There is no better place than Hog Island for savioring freshly shucked oysters while you sip a glass of champagne and soak in the sun (I’m not meaning to be snooty. 🙂 ). Truthfully, there is nothing snooty about Hog Island Oyster Farm: rustic picnic tables overlooking Tomales Bay with the hills of Tomales Bay State Park in the background.  It’s an idyllic locale perfect for appreciating the good things in life with your friends and loved ones. If you are a tourist, Hog Island is a great place to observe us local folks engaged in our Northern California lifestyle, that is, eating oysters and drinking champagne (we don’t mean to be snooty).

Recently, I was thrilled to bring my wonderful friends, Sandy and Jim, to Hog Island. They are no strangers to the NorCal lifestyle or the good things in life. (And, they are absolutely NOT snooty!)

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Sandy, a fellow nurse practitioner, world traveler, and good friend for over 20 years, looking glamorous and ready to enjoy some of Hog Island’s very best. I don’t know how Hog Island is able to raise an oyster that is both briney and buttery. Fabulous.
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The secret to a great Hog Island day is to bring a picnic. You are allowed to bring anything you want, except the oysters which you must buy from the Farm. You can purchase them shucked or shuck them yourself (much cheaper).
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Sandy and Jim looking relaxed and happy. How could they not be?
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BBQ Oysters anyone? These little treats are not to be missed. Perfectly grilled and dressed in a chipotle butter sauce. YUM!
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The Boat. This is where you order and pay for your oysters. They also serve decent (but overpriced) wine, cheese, and charcuterie. Experienced Hog Island devotees supply their own provisions.
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The Hog Island picnic grounds. The inner tables are first come, first served. Get there 15-20 minutes before they open to avoid a wait. The outer tables are reservation only. The tables book up 4 months in advance. No, I am not joking.
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Jim and me soaking up the sun.
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Sandy and me. Best buds.

Thank you Sandy and Jim for coming to visit and creating another happy Hog Island Oyster Farm memory for me. Here’s to the good things in life: friends like you.

The CCC Celebrates in CT!

“The CCC Celebrates in CT!” If that is not a perfect aliteration then I do not what is.  Just saying it makes me happy as the phrase conjures wonderful memories from my visit with good friends, Aimee and German, in Fairfield, CT.  As the “rush, rush, busy, busy” of another holiday season descends on us, there is nothing more calming than remembering the warm, easy days of summer – especially when the memories were so fun to make!

1 BBQ Farmers Market
Flowers at the Westport Farmers Market.

Aimee is my culinary soul-sister.  She has taught me so much about cooking and I occassionally teach her something too!  We love to cook together and this trip we were inspired by Laurie Colwin’s book, “Home Cooking”.  Part cookbook, part memoir, Colwin’s warm and friendly prose makes you want to get in the kitchen and create. Following Colwin’s chapter, “How to Avoid Grilling”, we prepared the perfect summertime meal: marinated short ribs, potato salad with cucumbers and creme fraiche, and heirloom tomato salad with red onion and soft boiled eggs.  I am salivating with the thought of that meal!

2 BBQ Farmers Market 3
For our produce we stopped at the Westport Farmers Market – an excellent selection of seasonable fruits and veggies. For everything else, we shopped at Westport Superior Seafood. Their meat counter is also superior with very helpful butchers.

After a busy morning of shopping, it was time for…wait for it….

5 Grey Goose Bloody Marys
The Grey Goose Bloody Mary!  Is there anything better than a Bloody Mary in a pint glass? (No, there is not.)
6 Grey Goose Aimee
Here’s to you, Aimee. May there be many more cocktails in our future!
8 BBQ Ribs getting ready
After our midday respite, we headed into the kitchen with Laurie Colwin as our guide. The  marinade is a combination of lemon, honey, soy sauce, oil and spices. The trick is to let the ribs marinate for at least 24 hours.
9 BBQ with friends
Friends enjoying our fantastic meal. Aimee’s husband, German, at the head of the table with Sandy and Jim (our good friends from grad school) on the left and my wonderful cousin, Kris, next to Aimee. Ahhh … al fresco dining … a most lovely summer memory.
10 BBQ EM and Kris
The CCC with her cousin, Kris.
11 BBQ EM and Sandy
Sandy and me. Sandy and I have been friends for over 20 years! She is also a wonderful and inspirational cook.
15 Bike Ride EM
The next morning Aimee and I went on a bikeride through Southport. Riding bikes was delightful way to spend time together and burn off the calories from last night’s dinner! Here I am taking a break with one of Southport’s inlets behind me.
16 Bike Ride Southport Harbor 2
The Southport Harbor. One of our stops along the way. Aimee and I sat on a bench nearby and talked for hours. One of the CCC’s preferred ways of spending time: long talks with a good friend.

Hours of cycling and meaningful conversation makes the ladies hungry. Time for a Fancy Lady Lunch at Artisan.

17 Artisan menu
Restaurant, Tavern, & Garden. I could not have said it better myself.
18 Artisan Outside Patio
The Artisan outdoor patio. Did someone say, “I’d like a glass of champagne, please?”
20 Artisan EM and Aimee BFF
Aimee and me after too much champagne. We could not ride our bikes home. Thank goodness for German who came in his truck to pick us up. He also paid for lunch because we forgot our credit cards (whoops!).
19 Artisan Aimee and German
Aimee and German. German is the perfect match for my good friend.

After all of our feasting and fitness, it was time for some culture. Aimee’s cousin, Andrea, recommended the Annual Sergio Franchi Summertime Concert.  Sergio Franchi was an Italian-American tenor in the 1960s. His dreamy voice and even dreamier looks made him popular in both operatic and contemporary music venues.  He founded the Sergio Franchi Music Foundation to support young vocal artists. The Foundation’s annual concert, now in its 20th year and hosted by his glamorous wife, Eva, is a celebration of up and coming young opera stars. The day-long event is a great way to enjoy the summer sun and hear some of opera’s greatest hits, like Turandot’s Nessun Dorma and Carmen’s Habanera.  What made the day even better was that we were joined by our favorite friend, Kiki!

23 Sergio EM and Kiks
The CCC and Kiki. Friends forever.
24 Sergio Kiki and Aimee
Kiki and Aimee enjoy some most needed shade.
21 Sergio with the ladies
What lady doesn’t love Sergio Franchi?
25 Sergio Aim and Andrea
Aimee with cousin Andrea. Thank you Andrea for a fantastic suggestion and a fantastic day!
26 Beach Day 4
No trip to the Connecticut shore is complete without a trip to the Connecticut shore! Aimee, German, and I spent my last hours in CT celebrating the joys of living close to the beach. Here, German and Aimee enjoy low tide while a flotilla of boats parties in the background.
27 Beach Day EM and Aim
A beach day with my best buddy, Aimee – the quintessential summertime memory.

Thank you Aimee and German for a most special week-end and being most special friends.  I think “The CCC Celebrates in CT!” should be my new mantra.

Inspirations

Please press play!

I love to cook.  Cooking is a wonderful way to shake off the stresses of the day and keep myself busy during the week-end.  It’s also a chance to sip wine and listen to Beethoven – two of my favorite activities.  More significantly, spending time in the kitchen allows me a chance to reminisce about the lovely people in my life who have helped me become a better cook, like Aimee, Sandy, Meera, Susan, Bev, and Lee – and that makes me happy.  Recently, I read a NYT article about The Four Seasons restaurant, where I have had the good fortune to dine with Kiki, and was inspired to make their recipe, Chopped Lamb Steak with Pine Nuts. My version was probably not as refined as the restaurant’s but it was still quite tasty and I will certainly make it again.

Paprika
The secret ingredient is Sweet Hungarian Paprika. I love box and that color red. (Yes, the little girl figurine is a Hummel – a gift from my sister, Lee.)
Chateau de Combes
Is it the cooking or the wine that makes kitchen time so relaxing? This Chateau de Combes was a bit tart up front but once it opened up it had the flavors of spicey cherries, tobacco, and (expensive) leather. Yes, I have been working on my wine palate!
Lamb patties
The recipe instructs the cook to make “five-inch egg-shaped patties”. Mine were not so pretty. Next time, I will stick with a more traditional burger shape.
lamb in butter
You can cook the patties in the broiler or sauteed in butter. I tried them both ways. Sauteed in butter is the way to go. It keeps the meat tender and juicy. Six minutes per side over medium heat gets a nice sear without overcooking the lamb.
Vinegarrette
For the side dish, I made a butter lettuce, flat-leaf parsley, and fennel salad with my shallot vinaigrette. Thanks to my cousin, Bobbie, and my friend, Meera, I do make the best vinaigrette around. Bobbie taught me to add salt to the vinegar until the vinegar tastes sweet. Meera encouraged me to use dijon mustard to make a truly French vinaigrette. I add just a touch of dijon and it brings flavors of the dressing together. Thanks ladies! Because of you, I have this dressing nailed!
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Ta-dah! I just love this salad! (Yes, I know I need to work on my food photos but trust me, this is a delicious salad combination.)
Wiggles
Miles aka Wiggles aka Pupchop is always ready to assist with tasting or cleaning the floor.
Dinner is served
Dinner is served! This meal is dedicated to all the lovely people in my life who helped become a better cook and with whom I have enjoyed so many wonderful meals! Thank you, friends!

Listen to Beethoven! This piece is, “Presto” from Piano Sonata No. 6 played by Jonathan Biss.  Whatever your musical tastes, Beethoven will be a welcome addition to your library.

Cape Cod Chronicles

I’ll say it: SF in the summertime sucks. It’s cold, windy, grey, and there is absolutely NO summer time culture. That means no outdoor bar-b-ques, no balmy nights, no cocktail cruises.  Perhaps most depressing is that my family and friends on the East Coast all gather together for regular outdoor bar-b-ques, balmy nights, and cocktail cruises.  What is a sad CCC to do? Buy a plane ticket and get myself there!  My most recent Cape Cod visit was particularly joyful because my husband, Brian, joined me, we celebrated my sister’s marriage to her, now, wonderful husband, Drew, and I was there for 12 days! Yay!

Our vacation started with the wedding week-end.  Drew and Joanna hosted 100 family and friends at Drew’s parents’ lovely home complete with gorgeous gardens and a refurbished barn.

joanna and drew wedding
Joanna, in her gorgeous wedding dress, with hubhub, Drew. I had the honor of helping Joanna choose the dress at L’Elite Boston. It was a hit with all the ladies at the party!
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Joanna and Drew get hitched! Their good friend, Matt Grant, officiated.
EM and Lauren at wedding
The CCC with our friend, Lauren. Joanna and Lauren went to high school together. She has not changed one bit and was the most fashionable woman at the wedding (aside from the bride, of course!).

After a week-end of wedding festivities, Brian and I spent most days fishing on Lavinia, my mother’s 17-foot Boston Whaler.

Brian heading out on boat
Nowhere is Brian happier than on a boat.
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We caught mostly bluefish (ick … not so good to eat) and a few striped bass. We released everything we caught. It’s ironic that neither Brian or I like to eat fish given how much we enjoy catching them!

Of course, it wasn’t all fishing.  We also celebrated the Fourth of July marina style! Drew, the true Cape Codder that he is, organized a boat parade where our patriotism was on display ever so mightly.

Joanna and Paul
Joanna with her good friend, Paul (and the brother we never had) get ready to decorate our boats.
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Cool rocking mamas in the USA…
Lee most patriotic
If Uncle Sam had a sister it would be Lady Liberty Lee.
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My nephew, Jason, asked me if his outfit was dorky. There is nothing dorky about the Red, White, and Blue. (Photo by Joanna.)
EM America Proud
Although I live in San Francisco where patriotism is nearly illegal, I am still proud to be American-made!

All that patriotism and fishing makes a girl tired. Time for cocktails! Kingman Marina is the premier spot to keep your boat in the summer months. It is a full-service marina but perhaps more importantly, home to The Chart Room – Megansett’s quintessential Cape Cod eatery and the best Mud Slide you will ever drink, ever, in the world.

Chart room
Two Mud Slides please. Don’t they look refreshing?
em and mud slide
Another perfect Cape Cod day!

Thank you to Cape Cod and to all my family and friends there.  You are the perfect antidote to the San Francisco Summer!

P.S. For those of you disinclined to believe I can actually fish, press play…. 😉

NYC part 2: A Tribute to Good Friends.

On my Spring 2015 pilgrimage to NYC, I had the best intentions of artfully documenting all of our cultural excursions with a few pics of the cocktails thrown in for good measure.  And, indeed, I thought I was doing this. However, in reviewing my photos when I returned home, I discovered my documentation was heavy on the cocktails, light on the culture.  So, you will just have to take me at my word that Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series at the MoMa was mind-blowing and  Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Heidi Chronicles” is still relevant to women today, because I have no photographic evidence to share.

What my photos did reflect was what a super-fun – might I even say, rockstar – time I had with my two wonderful friends, Aimee and Kiki and their fantastic spouses, German and Scott. So, this edition of the CCC is a tribute to the good friends who love us in spite of ourselves!

Our fun started at the Baccarat Hotel aka The CCC’s Heaven.  I have never been in such opulence while being treated with such loving kindness.  I am not kidding. The Baccarat staff really IS happy to see you and they really DO care that you have a good time.  By the time we left, I wanted to hug everyone.

Baccarat hotel window
The view from the Baccarat window. Trippy.
EM in the fur chair
The CCC in a (faux) fur-covered chair. So not camping.
Kiki and the fur chair
Kiki enjoying her fur chair with a bloody mary, of course. Did you know that the bloody mary is the official cocktail of the CCC?
bathroom door handle
Even the door handles in the ladies’ room are fancy.

After several hours of luxuriating at the Baccarat, Kiki and I headed out to meet our dear friend, Aimee, at the theater for The Heidi Chronicles.  When this wonderful show was over we went to (guess what?) another bar!

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Aimee and Kiki at The Lambs Club where it was not the bartender’s pleasure to serve us! Perhaps he was having a bad day or perhaps we annoyed him? Still, it’s hard to be too upset about bad service when I am at a bar with Kiki and Aimee.

After The Lambs Club, it was time for a rest and then preparations for our night out on the town. And yes, of course, some champagne.

EM enjoying the view
The CCC enjoys the view and some Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs – perfect for late afternoon sipping.
Kiki and Scott
Scott and Kiki on their Tribeca Terrace. A very happy couple.

Feeling relaxed and refreshed, we headed out to meet Aimee and German at The Conrad, our home away from home for the evening.

German and Aimee
German and Aimee ready for a night out!
Kiki and Marlow
Kiki with my delightful nephew, Marlow. Marlow is a PhD student in Slavic studies at Columbia (he got a scholarship). He speaks Russian fluently and is learning Georgian and Ukranian as well. Yes, I am bragging.

After drinks and snacks at the Conrad, German brought us to the dance club, Gonzalez y Gonzalez. I was fearful that my terrible dancing would make everyone run away. Happily, I could get lost in the crush of super coordinated Latin dancers and quietly do my “Tall Woman Dance”, as Kiki once called it, against a wall. (Oh, and yes, margaritas were drunk. Tequila shots were done.)

EM and German
German and me after the club and too many tequila shots. I love this pic because it just says, “fun!”
unhappy cabdriver
I call this photo, “Unhappy Cabdriver” because that’s what the cab driver was – unhappy at having to drive five overly tipsy adults home.

It’s true the next day, we were not at our best. The pounding head and upset tum were worth it given all the fun we had the night before – when do you ever say that about a hangover?  Fresh air would be our cure. We headed to the New York Botanical Gardens for healing natural beauty.  If you have never been, the gardens are really a must see – anytime of year.

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Kiki and Scott in the Orchid room.
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German and Aimee. I am so thrilled that both Aimee and Kiki found such wonderful husbands and partners in life.
tulip magnolia trees
The magnolia trees were out in full force. What a needed sight after our crazy night and the horrible winter for our friends in the Northeast.
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A tulip magnolia close up. If that does not heal you, I don’t know what will.

Thank you wonderful friends for the happy memories! May there be many more tributes to you in the future!