half of my heart is in havana

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Cuba has always been a mysterious destination to me, an off limits locale due to the long standing US embargo.  And what they say is true, you often want what you can’t have.  Thus, when the travel ban was eased in 2015, Havana shot to the top of my list of places to travel, and I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to visit.

Growing up in the US, there was not much information about this large Caribbean nation other than what was very briefly covered in history books, so I didn’t know what to expect.

This turned out to be a good thing because Havana was the best surprise.  I was stricken by its je ne sais quois (or no se que in Spanish…doesn’t really translate ;).  I mean, it’s an incredibly culturally rich and beautiful city.  It is both quaint and cosmopolitan, architecturally divine with its expansive boulevards and thoughtful city planning.  But there’s more to it than that because a lot of cities have those things and they’re not quite as fascinating.

Historically speaking, from pirates to American gangsters, you’re not going to find as interesting a place in these parts.  The country’s rise to immense power due to the sugar trade was astounding and its revolutionary history with its colorful figures is even more intriguing.  And being closed off to American travel for so long?  Maybe that adds to the allure.  Whatever it is, Havana is a really wonderful destination.

As Camila Cabello says, take me back, back, back…

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day trip to Louisville: Derby time!

Derby City has a long, illustrious history of horse farms, and of course, the Kentucky Derby, but there’s so much more to the city.  It’s the hometown of the Greatest, Muhammad Ali, Louisville Slugger and great southern eats like Kentucky Fried Chicken. Come on, you know you love those 13 spices.

I only got to drive through this city, but the roadtrip through this part of the country is serene and beautiful.  There’s fields of bluegrass for as far as the eye can see and pastoral scenes of horse farms and billboards advertising bourbon distilleries and caves.  It does not get more southern than this.  If you’re coming from the South, you will pass Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, too.  Louisville sits on the banks of the Ohio river and for that, was/is considered the gateway to the South.  And in fact, if you cross the river, you’ll be in Indiana.

Louisville, even though steeped in Southern history, seems very vibrant and young, maybe in part due to the college atmosphere.  There are a lot of trendy coffeeshops, I really liked Quills and local chain Sunergos.

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My first must see in the River City was the Muhammad Ali Center, a cultural museum dedicated to Cassius Clay, the man who would become the greatest American boxer of all time.  This center has interactive displays, movies and even a boxing ring.

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There’s tons of paintings and art featuring him, including this gorgeous piece by LeRoy Neiman.

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It’s not for profit, and celebrates the life of a man who inspired so many.

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The center sits on Louisville’s waterfront, which features a large lawn and green area, with playgrounds, paths and an outdoor event venue.

Louisville’s downtown is actually larger than I expected, with the center being the KFC YUM Center, where the Louisville Cardinal NCAA team plays basketball.  You are in Bourbon country, so there is a Woodford Reserve Club in the arena, and just down the street is one of the distilleries on the Bourbon Trail, Evan Williams.

The buildings in the West Main District and Whiskey Row have facades in the cast iron revivalist style, similar to those in SoHo in NYC.  There are tons of art galleries and museums, hotels in this walkable area.  It’s also home to the arts district of Louisville, with the Center of the Performing Arts and Actors Theatre.  Inside the Actors Theatre is MilkWood, one of severeal Top Chef allum Ed Lee’s dining experiences in the city.  I wanted to try this place so badly, but it was closed when I was passing through.  Louisville has a ton of high end dining options: maybe you’ll run into Tom Brady at Decca or the Fat Lamb, you never know.

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Behind that large gold replica of Michelangelo’s David (not sure the reason for that), lies Proof, a funkily decorated dining room that features everything from catfish dip to bourbon pie.  And of course, they’ve got juleps, which you’ve got to try when you’re in Kentucky.

Just a few blocks down is the Louisville Slugger museum.  You can’t miss it, it’s the one with the 120 foot tall baseball bat in front of it.

IMG_7115.JPGThis museum also serves as an active factory and you can take a 20 minute tour where they show you from start to finish how the bats are made.  Everyone gets a free mini-bat, but just remember not to put it in your carry on if you’re flying (it will be confiscated).  There’s a wall of famous “slugger” autographs and batting cages, of course.  There’s also famous bats that you can hold.  It’s kitschy, but I’m into baseball, so I liked it.

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This was a super quick trip, but that’s a good starting point to your Derby weekend.  Even though Churchill Downs is the main event, don’t forget to explore the other amazing attractions this city has to offer.

Famous Louisvillians: Muhammad Ali, Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lawrence, Hunter S. Thompson, Diane Sawyer, and Rajon Rondo (a motley crew if there ever was one)

Listen to: Nicole Scherzinger, My Morning Jacket, Patty Loveless and Bryson Tiller (Louisville gets more and more interesting as this list goes on)

Souvenirs: umm, Bourbon and a Louisville Sluggers — that should make for a fun night?

24 hours in Salt Lake City

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Salt Lake City is a really underrated travel destination.  I mean, a lot of people go there, but I don’t think it’s anyone’s first thought.  Maybe it should be.

First of all, it is probably one of the safest cities around.  Secondly, it’s a great jumping point to get to so many state and national parks (SO MANY).  Zion, Bryce Canyon, Moab/Arches, Canyonlands, Capital Reef, Utah has a ton of natural wonders throughout including the Great Salt Lake which gives the capital city its moniker.

As if that weren’t enough, in the winter, there’s world class skiing in Sundance/Park City and Snowbird, making it a great vacation spot.  Delta Airlines has a hub here making it super easy to get to as well.  So if you haven’t been, what are you waiting for?

don’t get too salty now…

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MSP: NCAA Championship edition

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Man, it seems like Minneapolis is getting all of the sporting events because of their fancy new stadium.  Of course, the NCAA tourney will be played there on Monday, April 8th.  For those of you heading to the game this upcoming week, here’s a little Minnesota refresher.

you’re gonna make it after all…

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day

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I know, it’s not for a few more days.  But since St. Patty’s falls on a Sunday this year, take some time to start planning your weekend.  There are celebrations all over the US (Chicago’s green river is a perennial favorite of mine), but it would be a dream (and possibly a little bit of a nightmare) to celebrate it on the Emerald Isle itself.  Here’s a throwback to my day in Dublin…

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i warsaw the sign

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Warsaw, Poland is a wonderful European capital city, with bustling markets, turbulent history, gorgeous architecture and amazing food and culture.  It is a patchwork quilt of a place, its architecture reflecting a storied history: Gothic churches, medieval squares and Soviet bloc gray cube buildings.  It has survived countless invasions and bombings and continues to thrive with its lively, vibrant urban-yet-traditional population.

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Any visit to the city must include a trip to its beautiful Old Town. The heart of Warsaw, this area was bombed by the Germans during WWII, and restored to its former glory after the war ended.  There are lots of outdoor cafes and restaurants in the square now, and you’ll find hordes of locals and tourists alike wandering about.  To really experience Poland, you gotta snack on pierogies throughout the day.  Locals don’t really eat them in restaurants, because they’ve got Polish grandmothers, but for the rest of us, we have to go to town…Old Town that is.  Gosciniec Polskie Pierogi is one of the more well known spots, no frills, really good authentic style dumplings.

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This is a city with lots of monuments and statues commemorating the many historical events that have occurred.  The Warsaw Uprising Monument memorializes an uprising from the Polish underground resistance against the Nazis in 1944, who had been occupying the city for the 5 years prior.  Of course, the Germans weren’t so happy about the uprising, so they basically torched 90% of the city in the years thereafter.  This memorial sits in Krasinski Square, right in front of the supreme court of Poland.  Very symbolic.

A short walk away is the Royal Castle, which is grand on its own, but one of the most notable attractions actually sits in front of it, the Castle Square.  This may  be the most charming cobblestone square in all of Europe, with its perfect pastel colored townhomes and the large King Sigismund topped column at the center (see first photo).

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When traveling in Eastern Europe, there is a plethora of cathedrals and churches to see, if you’re budgeted for time, pick either St. John’s Arch Cathedral or St. Anne’s Church.  Both are walking distance from the Royal Castle.

To cap off your day, head over (by car or bus) to Lazienki Park, Warsaw’s answer to Hyde Park or Central Park.  This large greenspace houses manmade lake, a beautiful palace, villas, and monuments.

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Possibly one of the most famous monuments in the city, there is a bronze statue dedicated to one of Warsaw’s favorite sons, Frederic Chopin.

Nocturne No. 2 is one of my all time favorites (I’m basic, what can I say?) and this statue is one of my favorite monuments, for its weeping willow canopy connecting through his body, into his hands and onto the piano.

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It’s pierogi time again, and surprisingly, chain Zapiecek is actually pretty decent if you want some homestyle eats in a stylized cozy Polish setting.  Or you can opt for any number of traditional folk dinners, enjoying kielbasa and Golabki (cabbage rolls) and sauerkraut.  Wash it all down with vodka, you deserve it!

 

 

Feliz Navidad from Mexico!

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In the words of the great Jose Feliciano, I want to wish you a Merry Christmas from the bottom of my heart!  Feliz Navidad is one of the all time great Christmas songs, and Mexico is one of the all time great travel destinations.  The culture, food, history, people– everything about this country is amazing.

La Ciudad de Mexico (CDMX) is one of the foremost cosmopolitan areas of the world, with bustling energy, a lively arts and fashion scene, inventive and traditional food culture, and architectural gems galore.  There are well preserved alhambras and monuments reminiscent of the grand plazas of Europe amongst a sea of modern skyscrapers and high rise hotels.

Fun fact: I won the Spanish language award my senior year in high school.  Another fun fact: my Spanish is terrible. Like muy terible. I have the worst American accent when I attempt to speak, but I do try, y es la intencion es lo que cuenta? Un poquito (read: oohn poke-ee-toe)?  En acualmente, escribo mejor que hablar, que lastima!  Lo siento, yo se mi espanol no es bueno, pero me humor por favor.

Nota: Todas las photografias en esta blog post son cortesia de mi hermana.

CDMX is having a real moment right now, so brush off your Paso a Paso book from high school…vamos a Mexico! HOLA y Bienvenidos a Mexico!

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Mele kalikimaka: a very Hawaiian Xmas

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Aloha, one of my favorite places to spend the holiday season (or any season) is Hawaii!  It’s the perfect getaway for a tropical vacation while staying on American soil (although I have heard tourists ask what currency is used there — facepalm).  As a Westcoaster, the rainbow state is only a stone’s throw 3-4 hour flight away, and Hawaiian airlines is the BEST domestic airline…free Mai Tais, anyone?  We’re lucky to be this close to paradise.

It’s very festive around the holiday season, and it’s a great reprieve from snowy weather — the average is high 70s with frequent showers.  But with many resorts and beaches and shopping and malasadas? Start planning your Hawaiian getaway now for next year.

Mele kalikimaka is Hawaii’s way of saying Merry Christmas to you!

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3 days in Boston

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Boston has had a pretty good past few days with the Pats beating my Chiefs on SNF and the Sox defeating the Astros on Sunday.  But today is a new day, and we’ll see if Boston can continue its streak against Houston.  Starting with Beantown, here’s the first in the series of the ALCS/NLCS cities.

One if by land, two if by sea…

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miss saigon: weekend in HCM City

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Vietnam is one of the most popular places in the world to travel, probably because it has everything: culture, art, delicious food, natural beauty, miles upon miles of beaches, history, welcoming people, hospitality and above all else, affordability.  You can live like a king on a moderate budget, every dollar goes super far here, while not sacrificing quality.

When traveling to Vietnam, you’re going to want to traverse the entire country, as there are unique landscapes, disparate culture and people throughout.  Even though it’s a smallish country, citizens from each region are very proud of their own distinct communities, from food to style and everything in between.  Just don’t get into a debate about who invented pho…there’s no winning with that one (it was the northerners ;).

The south of Vietnam is a great place to start.  Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is the country’s largest city by population.  The history of this city is rich, from its origin after Vietnamese conquered Khmer area, to the capital of French colonial rule to the then doomed epicenter of the Republic of Vietnam.  Because of the timeline of all sorts of different influences, the city is a mishmash of architectural styles.

Above all else, this is probably the epicenter of the future of Vietnam, with skyscrapers sprouting up everywhere and a population that is projected to be near 15 million in the next few years.  Not as cramped as Hanoi, this area is certainly still very crowded with motorbikes and people teeming into the streets every which way…and it’s ever changing.

blink and you’ll miss saigon

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