72 hours in… Flagstaff, Arizona

I’ve had a list of dream towns in my mind for years.   These are typically small western cities in the great outdoors, where someday I’ll work for an hour from home each morning in my pajamas, sipping coffee, before running out the back door to train in the hills, rivers and valleys (not for a race, but to conquer mountains).  In the afternoon I would take a short nap before heading out to the general store, which would be like a Whole Foods only local, and then retire in the evening to an amazing restaurant, great friends, and the smell of a crackling fire on a crisp autumn night.   Nastassja would have a real job that keeps her busy from 9 until 2, with Wednesdays and Fridays off.  There are sometimes children in this vision, usually helping to pack camping stuff or cooking breakfast for me, and they are always between the ages of 7 and 12.   And I’m not old or retired but have limitless energy to climb mountains, learn how to fly fish, and drink beer, and plenty of money to buy all the cool stuff I want from REI, including a drawer full of new Smartwool socks.  I’m pretty sure all this could all be mine if I just move to the right town.

The one thing the dream towns on my list have in common is I’ve never been there so there’s nothing to prove the dream wrong.  So Nastassja and I decided we needed to start visiting these places to understand if there was anything to my vision.  Our first stop: Flagstaff, Arizona, which we could also use as a launching point to visit the Grand Canyon.  We dropped the kids at the grandparents and set out on a scouting trip/getaway.

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Three Days in Flagstaff, Arizona

We flew into Phoenix and rented a Tiguan.  This is the world’s tiniest SUV.  It was cute – something I’d own if I lived in a place like Flagstaff

We arrived at the “Inn at 410″ bed and breakfast in downtown Flagstaff a little over 2 hours later.  Nastassja has never really been all that excited about B&Bs.  I think it’s something about having to cohabitate with total strangers, that they are almost too personal.  I’ve been to good ones and bad ones.  And this… was a really good one.  We had a great big room in the back of the house with its own separate entrance.  And the location was just 3 blocks up the hill from the center of Flagstaff’s tiny downtown.  We booked dinner at Flagstaff’s fanciest restaurant for a few hours later – located next door to the hotel – and got ready to explore the downtown.  I was happy to see they had a “happy hour” set up in the living room, which looked a bit like the bar I had in my house in graduate school.  Vodka? Gin?  Tonic?  Check and check.  We helped ourselves to some lemon water and set off into the late afternoon of what was a perfect weather day.

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The downtown was very compact, just a few blocks wide and long, with the old train tracks and rail station marking what I imagined was the boundary for the seedy side of town.  There was a little mall that had t-shirt stores and reminded me of a place near where we used to live in Cambridge.  There was an ice cream place.  There were about 5 stores that sold hiking clothes.   And yes, Route 66 ran down through town.

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We had an hour before dinner so we looked for a before-dinner drink and found this wine place called Vino Loco

The patio was packed with people drinking wine casually with their dogs and a few babies.  This was our kind of place.  Unfortunately the patio was full so we sat inside alone, but the bartender (a U of Northern Arizona student?) was goofy and the wine was good and it was nice inside.  We enjoyed our glass of wine and thought, “maybe we’ll come back here tomorrow night and drink way too much?”, but it was time for dinner

Brix

We went to Brix, Flagstaff’s #1 restaurant.  It was still pretty casual, and we sat outside on a patio and had (more) good wine and pretty good food.  It was a good night.   We captured one picture.

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Grand Canyon

We were jet lagged and wanted to get in a full day, so we got up at 5 and headed out to the Grand Canyon. This was only about an hour and a half away.  The drive itself was pretty, through the mountains and then along some quiet highways.  If you haven’t been to the Grand Canyon then I can’t really explain it.  Pictures don’t do it justice.  It’s just really big and quiet.  We walked around the rim trail and set off down into the Canyon.

The trail down into the canyon was pretty crowded and slow.  There are signs every 50 feet warning you that you will die if you hike too far down into the canyon in one day.  A strong gust of wind blew my favorite Phillies cap off my head and down into the canyon.  It was sad (see before and after below – the cap is somewhere a few thousand feet below the rock in the second picture).

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So about an hour and half in we got to a reasonable turnaround point and I argued with Nastassja that we should go further.  We got about another 100 yards and ran into a burro train.  It was a sign to turn around.

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We climbed back up to the top in about an hour.  It wasn’t lunch yet and we’d pretty much seen what we needed to see of the Grand Canyon.  It was time to head back to Flagstaff.

Flintstone rest stop

This place was about halfway back to Flagstaff and every bit as ridiculous and awful as it looks.   I regret to say we passed on the theme park and just browsed the gift shop a bit.

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Beaver Street Brewery

We got back to Flagstaff, cleaned up and headed out to this brewpub.  I didn’t take this picture, but it was just like this.

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This is when I realized that Flagstaff had been frozen in time in 1997.   This brewpub had the same food and beer as the brewpubs that were popping up around then, meaning it wasn’t bad but it wasn’t good.  We had some heavy bar food and headed out.

Hops on Birch

We decided to check out the beer place that was next to the wine place from the night before.  It was “Odell Brewery Tap Takeover night”, which meant they had 20 different kinds of IPAs from Odell brewery on tap.  Nastassja was looking for a wheat beer or a belgian beer.  No dice.  We were tired and I had two heavy beers in my stomach so I thought that might be it for the night, but I thought maybe we’d try another glass of wine at the wine place before we called it.

Vino Loco – part 2

First we sat and started playing a board game.  Again, this isn’t my picture but we were sitting at that barrel on the left near all the wine.  flagstaffwine

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Then a dude started playing an acoustic guitar and singing 90s alt-rock songs.  Here is just a partial list of songs you could request.  Wouldn’t you like to time warp to that night and join us?   What would you pick?

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So we ordered a bottle.  Then Nastassja was running up with requests.  Then we ordered another bottle.  Luckily we found out we could take the rest of the bottle “to go” which saved us.  We shut it down before it got out of control.  Fun night.

Saturday

Morning punishment run

We got up early (again) and ran off the mild hangover from the night before.  This was the thing I’ll remember about Flagstaff. We ran out of the B&B, up a big hill, then though a park with the mountains behind it, and if we’d had a bit more time we could have kept running right up into the San Francisco peaks.  This was the dream, and tough work too.  But we needed to get back to breakfast at the B&B.

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Bed and breakfast breakfast

Which was again, super cute and delicious.  I really liked this place.

We were undecided on what to do on day 2 so we did what came naturally.  We went to the Flagstaff REI to get some hiking clothes.  We were a little embarrassed to see the guitar player from the night before working in the shoe department, but we all pretended like it didn’t happen and got on with things.

Walnut Creek Canyon

We drove about a half hour to the outskirts of town and checked out Walnut Creek Canyon, an old native american site where the residents lived in caves carved into the canyon.  Pretty cool.

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Salsa Brava

Then we stopped at this weird tex mex place with amazing salsa.  I don’t know how this wouldn’t be a hit in Houston. They gave you chips, then you went to a salsa bar and picked from 8 or 9 salsas which ranged from spicy to outrageously hot.  The food was good too.  Score one for southwest mexican food.

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Red Mountain Trail

We decided to go to this red rock place to do one more hike, just on the other side of town.  It was very quiet and deserted.  It was a pretty cool hike, although it was a bit of an afterthought after doing the Grand Canyon the day before.

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On the way back I almost ran out of gas.  Nothing like creating a little stress out of an otherwise calm day.

Late for the Train Coffee

This was a coffee chain that reminded me of a coffee chain from 1998.  They had regular coffee and espresso drinks.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the flagship Flagstaff coffee place just did not compete with the 2014 hipsterdom of Montrose or any other major city making pourovers with single origin beans or flat whites.  I ordered a cup of something like “flagstaff blend” and we headed back out.

A few other random places

We went to a cuban restaurant for dinner, owned by the same people who ran Brix.  It was nothing special.  Then we walked around and watched a guy playing guitar in the square outside the t-shirt mall.  We got an ice cream.  There were kids running around getting ready to watch a movie being projected on a wall in the square.  Again I couldn’t shake the feeling I was frozen in time.

We looked for gifts then grabbed a final glass of wine at a pretty corporate place near the square.  I realized then that we’d reached the end of Flagstaff.   It was Day 2 and we’d exhausted everything we wanted to explore.  That was it… hiking, a few restaurants, one great unpretentious wine bar.  Maybe we were missing something but I doubt it.  So it had everything I thought it would have, but it would take some getting used to living in a small city in the middle of the high desert.

We got up at dawn and ate a to-go breakfast provided by the B&B.   We were happy to get home and see the babies.

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72 Hours: New Orleans

For those of you who live in the south, you may know it’s Mardi Gras season. And Mardi Gras makes me think of New Orleans. New Orleans is a special place that manages to combine an old world feel, culture, and sin in such a graceful way. Anyone who’s lived within a 6 hour drive from New Orleans has probably been there, been to Bourbon street and seen that carefree, fun, and yes, dirty side of New Orleans. However, did you know there’s so much more? I won’t pretend to be an expert, but we did have a pretty awesome trip there a few years ago, and can’t wait to go back for a long weekend. Here’s your 72 hours itinerary for The Big Easy.

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Day 1: Watch Out New Orleans Here We Come!

If you’re driving, you probably think it’s closer than it is. And rush hour matters. So, here are a few ways to break up your trip – all of which involve eating and drinking, of course.

  • Stop for legitimate boudin somewhere in Louisiana (The Boudin Map).
  • Eat some dinner at Parrains in Baton Rouge for true cajun seafood.
  • Arrive at your hotel in New Orleans – we stayed at the W French Quarter this time, but we have also used Priceline to get deals on rooms with much success.
  • After freshening up a bit, head to SoBou in the hotel for an amazing craft cocktail.
  • If you’re up for some bar hopping, also try the Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone.
  • If you’d rather try something else, the Haunted Tours are pretty fun – I recommend the French Quarter ghosts walking tour.
  • Head back to your hotel to pass out, because you have kids, and staying up past 1am is just not your thing anymore.
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Carousel Bar – Click for photo source

Day 2: Walk it Off

New Orleans is such a great walking city. We went in August, so definitely very hot (not that different from Houston), but we still loved to walk around and explore. There’s also pretty decent public transportation / bus service so you don’t need to take cabs everywhere if you’re willing to put in the effort to figure it out.

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  • When you stumble out of bed, head directly to Cafe du Monde at French Market for the well known beignets, coffee that looks (and tastes) like mud, and overall tourist experience. (Note: If you are willing to stand awkwardly inside, waiting on someone to get up, you’ll get a table faster.)
  • Walk around the French Quarter or head over to the Garden District for some shopping. Since New Orleans is really a nighttime place, this is also a good time to visit Harrahs (if gambling is your thing) or head just out of town to Visit a Plantation.
  • Head back to the room to take a nap / freshen up and prepare for your second night out in the Arts / Warehouse District
  • Start your evening with some wine at W.I.N.O. where they have wine on tap (yes, it’s true).
  • Walk down the street to Cochon for dinner – amazing food and fun atmosphere.

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Day 3: Music and Art

Much like Vegas, New Orleans, depending on your pace, can make you feel a bit pickled by Day 3. So start off your day with some exercise to get the blood flowing and get ready for a slower paced day of shopping the art galleries and live music.

  • Head out for a run (earlier is better if you’re there on the summer). We typically run down Canal Street to the Riverwalk and then just explore from there. Stay around the French Quarter area for some good people watching and easy navigation.
  • Now that you’re ready, go get your first meal of the day – maybe Mothers or if you want something simpler, there are tons of cafes and coffee shops in the French Quarter.
  • Plan to walk around on Royal street to check out the art galleries and fun shops. If you’re there in August, consider going on Dirty Linen Night (we did!) where everyone wears their white linens from the previous weekend and the shops stay open late. It was really nice and fun and was a different side of New Orleans than the neighboring Bourbon street.
  • Once it’s late into the evening, walk over to Frenchman Street. Frenchman Street is known for live music, so you can’t go wrong just picking a place and walking in. We chose d.b.a and stumbled upon some amazing jazz and good beer. It was fantastic.
  • Skipped dinner? Need a midnight snack? Need more soul food in your life? Try Praline Connection.
  • Hail a cab back to the hotel to get a few hours of sleep before heading home.

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Just remembering all these fun things makes me want to go back! Guess we’ll be planning a trip soon.

– Stassja

72 Hours: Texas Hill Country

Every now and then we get a chance to take a long weekend away from the kids, and this January we jetted off to the Texas Hill Country. This was an easy choice for us since we’ve never really been, and it’s a relatively short drive away from home. The weather was hit and miss, but we made the most of it and are ready to share our favorite stops below.

Day 1: San Antonio

Even though we’ve lived in and around Houston for a number of years, neither of us had been to San Antonio as an adult and wow, I feel like we missed out. The city had so much culture and history, especially relative to Houston, and we walked away thinking we could totally live here. We didn’t even get the chance to explore all the fun neighborhoods, so there will definitely be a return trip!

  • Check into your downtown hotel – we stayed at the Westin Riverwalk and it was perfect for the short time we were there.
  • Head to The Alamo because though it may be small, it is fierce. No really, learn your Texas history. Be sure to hashtag your instagram #rememberthealamo – and then check it a few hours later to see the same exact photo you took but with different people. Also, did I mention you can walk to it from most of the hotels?
  • Stop by the Mercado and grab an amazing dulce de leche empanada from the Mi Tierra bakery.
  • Grab dinner on the Riverwalk (we tried Biga on the Banks, but I am sure the tex mex places are good too and less pricey!) and hit up one of the cocktail bars – Esquire looked awesome but was closed when we were there (downside of New Years Day travel).

Day 2: Head to the Hills

  • After sleeping in your Heavenly Bed, go for a run down the Riverwalk. We jogged down to the Pearl Brewery area which was about 2 miles from the hotel – It was actually quite nice, and time flew by.
  • Visit Local Coffee for amazing – yep, you guessed it – local coffee and espresso.
  • Once you realize you’re starving, head to green for an awesomely filling vegetarian breakfast. Mark had the migas and I had the veggie eggs benedict. So good.

  • Jog back to the hotel and hit the road – it’s time to see some hill country!
  • We were really hoping to hit up the Real Ale Brewery tasting but they were closed as it was a holiday week so we headed to Redbud Cafe in Blanco instead for lunch – they had all the Real Ale on tap (Devils Backbone is my favorite, but Mark loves them all) and decent sandwiches so that was a win. Plus awesome 50s tablecloths.

Since we were determined to go to a brewery, and Real Ale was out, we headed to Jester King Brewery, known for their experimental sour beers. We tried multiple beers and even stayed for the tour, and for the hilarious Portlandia-type stories we could tell from that experience it was worth it. But I cannot, in good faith, recommend that you go there. Unless you like things that are cool because they are different but are actually just bad. You might like it then.

We also considered Adelbert’s and Independence which are closer to Austin, but decided the timing didn’t quite work out. Next time we head to Austin we’ll try those. Back to the itinerary…

  • Head to Fredericksburg and check in to your B&B – we stayed at Fredericksburg Herb Farm and thought it was really nice, but I think there are several good options.
  • Head to main street for some window shopping – remember this is small town USA, and shops close at 6!
  • Grab dinner at the Fredericksburg Herb Farm – especially if you’re staying there – reasonably priced “fine dining” and very good. We were impressed – bonus – it’s focused on local, seasonal food.
  • Go to bed and get sleep, because there are no kids and eight hours is a treat.

Day 3: Fredericksburg

  • Wake up insanely early and head to Enchanted Rock to hike because you’ve heard it gets crowded and there’s a sunrise yoga class. Arrive at the state park in darkness only to realize there is no yoga class, and the trail is potentially closed due to bad weather. Rationalize that the trail is not “actually” closed because there is an alternative trailhead that does not have a rope in front of it and climb Enchanted Rock.
  • If you climb this usually very crowded trail during more normal hours, I’m sure it will not be a problem to figure out which way is down, but if you are the only one on the top of the rock, consider the lessons of Hansel and Gretel, mark your path, and do not attempt to descend on the wrong side of the rock. Lesson learned.
  • After your outdoor adventure, head to Hilltop Cafe for pretty great food, a cool atmosphere and lots of vintage beer signs.

  • It would not be a hill country trip if you didn’t go to a winery, so do as you’re told and go to Grape Creek and Becker Vineyards (two most popular). We preferred Becker for the more laid back vibe and better wine, but both were fun. Enjoy the adirondack chairs with wine glass holders. Amazing – need these for my back porch now.

  • If you didn’t catch main street yesterday, now is the perfect time to shop (with a few glasses of wine in you) – we resisted for the most part, but some of the shops were pretty cool – our favorite was Red, a modern furniture / accessories store.
  • Grab a light dinner somewhere or just head to Lincoln Street wine bar where they have live music, nice owners, a good wine selection and a cheese plate that is enormous.
  • Head to bed for 8 more hours of glorious sleep, wake up and drive home to see your babies, who you now love even more.

This was a great long weekend away for us – I’d love to hear your suggestions / recommendations in the area!

– Stassja