Saturday, August 27, 2016

Personalizing a New Home

Creating a personal, lived in feel in a new home can raise challenges.  There's something so austere about freshly painted walls and pristine floors.  But our new contributor, Esther, is showing off how she established her own unique style in her new Raleigh home.  The last thing you want when you walk into a home is to feel like you've stepped into a textbook open house - nondescript styling and accents just to fill a space.  Esther wanted to bring in both traditional furniture (her home has very traditional finishes) and the modern aesthetic that she personally loves.  Here's what she accomplished in the most-used social room in her house, her kitchen/dining room:






The dining room came together from the ground up -- I started with an oversize Moroccan tiled rug from Joss and Main, my go-to source for large area rugs at a reasonable price.  It’s 8’x10’ and high pile – I’m a very tactile person and LOVE soft fluffy rugs.  Since I went with a more fun and modern rug, I opted for a more traditional dining room table that would still be cohesive with a modern vibe. The dining room table is from Arhaus. I love it because the leaves are stored within the table and it is super easy to expand the table length (just lift and pull!).

The chairs are from Ikea and match the bar stools (which are just beyond these photos at our kitchen island). 

Designer tip: I wanted to incorporate two different colors for added visual depth, and the chair covers are machine washable to boot!


Since I don’t host sit-down meals often, I wanted casual dining table settings that wouldn’t show a lot of dust. To keep with the graphic patterns I'm layering in this space to create a modern aesthetic, I layered stripes napkins and geometric place mats, all in neutral grays and whites to make a more cohesive look. The coasters are my favorite purchase; I love the pop of color from these Anthropologie geodes!  For an improptu centerpiece a make-your-own terrarium is a low maintenance counter to traditional fresh flowers. 


The Arhaus buffet is a companion peace to the dining table, and has fold out leaves to make a larger bar area.  The center cabinet is designed specifically for wine storage, so this is a full-fledged bar area in disguise.


I wanted to have a large gallery wall rather than a single large piece. I have to admit, I have trouble committing to wall art, so I had this design laid out on the floor just in front of this wall for a solid month before I finally decided to hang them up! I actually used a cereal box to standardize the space between items. Although I clearly didn’t take the time to straighten pieces before taking this picture… oops!


What kind of art belongs in a kitchen? Food photography of course.  These are actually by a local photographer found at Raleigh's Artsplosure.


 The two large focal pieces of my gallery wall are the items that I most identify with.  An aerial map of my current home town, Raleigh, and a portrait of my actual DNA (below).



Nothing is more individual than getting your own DNA turned into art.  I love this because it’s a novelty piece – visitors always ask me about this one! You make your purchase, the company DNA11 sends you a cheek swab, and they send you the product with your DNA. You can include up to four individual DNA samples, as well as select your colors and framing options. They also make fingerprint or kiss portraits. 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Southwest Park Trip Part 1: Vegas to Zion

Last fall we hit the road for the most amazing vacation through some of the Southwest's best national parks.  We've been lucky enough to have vacationed in Spain, Paris, Costa Rica... my husband and I both agree that our trip through Arizona and Utah was the best of anything we've done so far! You can check the full itinerary here, but we're getting you started at the very beginning in today's post -- flying into Las Vegas.

Why We Chose Vegas Honestly, it was an easy choice.  We could get direct flights from NC to Vegas (direct flights are really rare for us), and both flight and car rental prices for Las Vegas tends to be cheaper than other nearby airports.  Plus, knowing we were "roughing it" for the next week made me want to at least start out the trip in a crush of people, glitz, and good food. We rented an SUV for the trip because we knew we'd be logging a lot of car time, some of which would be on less than ideal road conditions.  This especially came in handy driving around Monument Valley and in Arches National Park.  

After picking up our rental car, we took a little drive down the strip like normal tourists and then set upon a Target to stock up on supplies. I'd recommend investing in:
  • bottled water (we got two 24 packs and that made us through the entire week)
  • first aid supplies like bandaids, neosporin, hand sanitizer (unless you already packed those)
  • sunscreen
  • nonperishable food/snacks:  we got 2 tubs of trail mix, a few boxes of granola bars, beef jerky (you can't have too much), a bag of fuji apples, and a box of cereal (we are big time cereal munchers)
  • a bottle of wine and a bottle opener if you always forget yours (don't judge)
  • anything you forgot to pack --socks, sunglasses, toothbrush, batteries...  
After loading up the car we made it priority number one to eat an obscene amount of food before making the 2.5 hour drive to Zion National Park.  There were so many choices, but because we have watched an embarrassing number of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives we had already staked out our destination months in advance: the Asian-fusion paradise called Bachi Burger

The oxtail chili cheese fries were a meal in their own.  And worth every calorie.

My man loves a good burger.
So no surprise, but this was hands down the best meal of our trip. 
Uncomfortably stuffed and with half of my burger relegated to a to-go box (to be happily consumed by Mark in a few hours -- no food ever goes long uneaten in my house), we headed out towards Zion National Park. 

Where We Stayed

The Driftwood Lodge was a fantastic place to stay, located just outside of Zion's main entrance in Springdale, Utah.  A free shuttle system runs through Springdale, bringing hotel guests to and from the park from morning til night.  The shuttle pick up is just right outside of the hotel and couldn't have been more convenient.  Our rooms were huge -- like I felt guilty with having so much space but maybe I had just gotten too accustomed to European hotel standards. We even had a little porch outside with a bistro table and chairs, perfect for uncorking a bottle of wine and enjoying the view.  And the view is spectacular.  The hotel backs up to a lovely mountain view with a little pasture where a neighbor's horses lazily grazed.  Another perk? Their complimentary breakfast buffet was first class. Fueling up on bacon and coffee every morning with that kind of view was just a little peak at what we'd have in store for us at Zion. 

Pull up a seat; this was the breathtaking view from our room at the Driftwood Lodge
I loved Driftwood Lodge, but I have to say food in Springdale in general is not so good.  We ate at a few different places over our 3 night stay, and it's definitely a town that suffers from the typical tourist food dilemma.  Keep expectations low and you'll be fine.

About Zion
Hands down, Zion National Park should be the top destination on your itinerary list.  You could easily spend a week just exploring this park. The convenience is unparalleled here, as you'll soon realize when you start hitting up the other parks on this itinerary.   There are well-maintained bathrooms (with actual toilets), picnic areas, well-marked trails, and insanely easy access with their fantastic shuttle service. There are hikes for all ages, and we spent almost our entire visit to Zion National Park with people in their late 50s or older. And believe me, it was inspiring because some of these older ladies were totally kicking my butt when we were hiking up Angel's Landing. #NoExcuses

Cost: $25 for a 7 day pass

And the views.  It's unlike anything you've ever seen.





The Patriarchs
Because we were only there for two full days, we had to pick just two major hikes to go on.  I'd definitely recommend trying to get a third day if your trip allows because we had to leave out the Observation Point hike and I've heard great things about this one too.  Just a reason to come back when I'm a ridiculously in shape 65 year old.

Top Hikes: 
Angel's Landing -- heart thumping excitement; perfect to challenge your fear of heights
The Narrows -- do you like hiking in waist deep water? 
Observation Point -- we didn't do this one but you get great views of the park and a view of Angel's Landing down below. Takes about 6 hours

Shorter Hikes:
Emerald Pools -- Not my fave but let me explain. There had been very little rain when we were there (well until the day we hiked the Narrows at least, but that's another story), so the "pools" were really just little mud puddles.  Not scenic and crawling with toddlers and young kids splashing in the mud, running and nearly toppling the more elderly visitors that had chosen Emerald Pools because it's one of the easier hikes in the valley.  I heard one older woman catching her breath on a rock whispering to her husband as she shook her head in dismay at the havoc of kids let loose like it was a mud and rock version of Chuck E Cheese "Their parents should have just taken them to the beach."  Okay, not all trips are for ages 4-6 and maybe hiking the most popular elderly person trail in a national park is one of them.  But when I have kids I'm sure I'll feel differently. 
Weeping Rock -- If you're hot its nice to get a splash of water here as you walk "under" a little waterfall of rivulets.  
Riverside Walk -- This is the start to the Narrows Hike, but even you don't plan on doing the Narrows, it's a nice little hike on a paved path that runs you right by the Virgin River.

I'd also really recommend just driving through Zion and stopping when you find something you want to explore.  The changes in landscape are unbelievable.  We got out and jumped around on the sides of mountains that looked like sandcastles and got to share the road with a herd of bighorn sheep.  Not a bad way to spend an evening.






Want more Zion?  We're talking Angel's Landing and The Narrows next!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Patio Reveal

Rewind your mindset to 2011.  The housing market is around rock bottom -- even here in Raleigh. Homes were routinely sitting on the market for over a year as the economy continued to stutter and falter.  My husband was a few years into his job, living from dorm to apartment to apartment with his college roommates, and he was at the time in his life to start thinking about buying a house.  We were so fortunate to find a home that we could grow with -- space for a family that we may eventually get around to starting. But ever since those days of new home ownership, when we were still using college dorm couches and had a mattress on the floor of our bedroom to sleep on, there was one glaring project that needed attention as soon as the funds existed for it:


The "patio" was in all sorts of states of pathetic, from the warping wood slats to the strange addition of a cement paver side bar where weeds loved nothing more than to worm their way between. It had to go, but it was a project that, let's be honest, was way beyond the do it yourself gusto that got me through painting, hedge trimming, and wasp nest spraying (you know, normal home owner problems).

Since we were well out of our league, we got a referral from a friend who had a lust-worthy patio.  If you live in the Raleigh area, I can't recommend Mike Fogt at Ryan's Landscaping enough!





When you decide to invest in a patio, you're faced with a few decisions.  Stamped concrete? Pavers? I would say if your budget can allow, flagstone is worth every penny.



Flagstone ages amazingly well, and every rain storm we get seems to bring out more dimension and color.  Now we're ready to add furniture and a grill and get out there and enjoy all the work we put into the yard!





Monday, May 30, 2016

Girls Weekend in Harry Potter World



Last year my friends and I had a small hiccup in time -- we were turning 30, but there were some not very 30-year-old things we still wanted to accomplish in life.  High on the bucket list: a Harry-Potter themed get away.  I've got lofty travel aspirations, so of course I wanted to fly to London and take the train to the castle where the movies were filmed (inspired by the ultimate Harry Potter fans in my book, Meg and Colleen at Two Delighted).  We settled on the more realistic weekend destination of Harry Potter World in Universal Studios Orlando.



What To See:
Definitely get the park to park pass because if you are going to Universal specifically for Harry Potter World, you'll be missing out if you only get the Islands of Adventure park ticket.  The original Harry Potter World theme park was the Islands of Adventure branch, and that's where you'll find Hogwarts Castle (and the Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey ride inside), and a very nicely acted Olivander's wand selection show.


The snow-capped buildings of Hogsmeade are a nice contrast  to the often sweltering heat of Florida in spring and summer.  
But the truth is, besides two coasters and exploring shops (many of which are just empty store fronts), the Diagon Alley addition in the main Universal Studios park is significantly better.  Almost all the stores are interactive, and the ride there (Escape from Gringotts) is much less nauseating though just a bit too short.  Definitely in the Diagon Alley section you'll feel a bigger submersion into all things Harry Potter; the tighter layout, narrow corridors, and visual seclusion from the rest of the park (it's even hard to find where to go in -- we walked by it about 3 times!) make this area especially authentic.

Calling the Ministry of Magic

Kreacher makes an appearance at the window every few minutes
The Knight Bus is complete with talking head -- the animatronics in Harry Potter World are hands down the best in the park!

The Rides:  I should preface any opinion here by saying that I am scared of roller coasters.  I cry on them routinely, not because I'm having fun but I am legit horrified for my life.  Also motion sickness is an issue.  So if you are not so minded, please take my opinions with a grain of salt.  I loved both Harry Potter themed rides, but the Forbidden Journey one really turned my stomach over. We had lofty goals of riding it back to back during our early admission hour (if you stay at one of the park's hotels this is one of the perks!), but I literally couldn't have physically done that ride twice in a row.  There's something about the offset of the 3D visuals and the movement that doesn't match up quite perfectly, and I'm not the only one I saw get visibly uncomfortable coming off the ride.  They have a bathroom strategically available right where you get off to limit mess-making on the staircase leading back down to the lockers.  The only ride I felt was worse as far as motion sickness goes was the Simpsons ride (previously Back to the Future).  Literally almost didn't eat lunch after that.



Not to miss: While there's lots to do in Harry Potter World, the rest of the park has plenty to offer as well.  My personal favorites were the Jurassic Park River Adventure ride (though the animatronic dinos at the beginning could use an upgrade), The Revenge of the Mummy roller coaster (again, the visuals seem dated but the ride itself is fun), and the Transformers ride.  There are just a few too many rides using motion seats and 3D visuals for my taste (I'm sure these are less expensive to construct, but I'd truly hate if the future of theme parks was to be all 3D effect rides).  The water park rides are also quite fun, especially the Popeye river raft ride.  If you want to have the best river raft fun, try to strategically place yourself in line with a larger group of people.  We went once with a big group and once with a few small kids.  If you don't have enough weight in your raft you won't get nearly the same amount of movement and bounce during the ride!  Heads up: you will get soaked. Like head to toe, wet rat appearance for several hours until you dry out. One thing I found annoying was that all over the park you have free lockers to store your things, but at the water park area, where your items will be drenched, you have to pay for lockers.  It's not expensive but just seems oddly incongruous with the rest of the park.  Also they have water gun stations for watchers to be able to squirt riders with even more water as they go through the course of the ride, but they charge to use those as well.  If they were free, people would be using them all time, but I only saw a handful of people take advantage of the water guns because the park charges you per use.  These little nickle and diming tactics sort of took away the spirit of Islands of Adventure and if remedied would truly add to the overall fun in that side of the park.


What to Eat: 
So I know no one goes to a theme park expecting good food (well, except Disney Epcot which truly delivers in my book). Universal definitely isn't going to provide a foodie experience, but the prices for food are reasonable and we did find a few good meals.  Of everything we ate, The Leaky Cauldron provided the best variety and taste in my opinion.  If you are truly hungry, skip the Guinness stew which ends up being a few scoops of soup and mostly bread bowl.  The Bangers and Mash or Fish and Chips will be more likely to fill you up. We ended up eating here twice, but many of Universal's more popular restaurants were closed during our stay so unless we wanted cafeteria style hamburgers or pizza, this was one of our only options. Obviously you have to try the Butterbeer. It's delicious and refreshing.  Many sites I read recommended the Butterbeer icecream in Diagon Alley, but I'd disagree.  The ice cream turns the flavor almost uncomfortably sweet and since it is trademarked (I'd just like to take a moment and give a girl power nod to J.K. Rowling over that fantastic stroke of genius!), you can't add any toppings or sprinkles to your cone.  I don't know about you, but if I'm going to get ice cream at a Harry Potter theme park, I want it to be kind of ridiculous magical looking ice cream with lots of dumb sprinkles and crazziness. Stick with the traditional Butterbeer in my book (the frozen version kind of waters it down a bit), or if you feel like upping your game to an adult beverage I'd highly recommend the Firewhisky which is a shot of cinnamon whisky splashed into a Strongbow. Delightful taste and definitely delivers a punch.

For a great photo-op, make sure you take a picture from the bridge between Hogsmeade and the Jurassic Park area 
Where to Stay:
For the easiest access to the park, it really is worth it to stay in a Universal Studios hotel.  They offer a free shuttle service to the Universal City Walk area all day, and you get 1 hour of early park access before other guests can enter. This extra hour is a prime time to hit up the Harry Potter World attractions before the lines get completely out of control.  We stayed in the most affordable option, the Cabana Bay resort.  The other hotels on Universal's property are considerably nicer, but how nice do you need?  If you are planning to spend all day in the park, the room is really secondary.  Plus, I found the retro vibe of the hotel rather charming.  The pool area looked spectacular, but we never got a chance to use it because we were park hoping all day.  There is a small bar near the check in which is surprisingly affordable (cocktails around $11, beer around $6).  The Starbucks inside was a great place to grab a coffee in the wee morning hours to enjoy on the shuttle to the park at 7:30 AM and the  subsequent wait at the park gate until it opened at 8. Yes, we are those people.  Another great touch: old cartoons from the 30s and 40s were playing nonstop in the dining areas, many of which I vaguely remembered from my distant childhood when stations like Nickelodeon would still play some of the old stuff.   To save money, try comparing vacation package websites to the standard hotel fees.  We stayed in May for $145 a night by combining flight + hotel with a Southwest Vacation package.

What to Wear: If you are going to Harry Potter World, I'd highly recommend investing in a theme shirt or outfit for your group.  Seeing everyone's costumes was one of my favorite parts of the park experience!  If you are bringing a kid, you'll get so many photo-ops to let them go all out in a robe and broomstick.  I even saw a cute little kid with a stuffed Hedwig strapped to his arm.  Sure, stowing brooms or stuffed animals isn't the best option for riding rides, but if you come back later in the day (a few hours before the park closes is ideal) dressed in full regalia, you'll be primed for great pictures during the less crowded time of the day.  Stay tuned for a post about the Quidditch jerseys I made for our trip!

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Weekend Getaway to Charleston

Do you really need a reason to take the drive down to Charleston? Just a few hours south, spring is in full swing -- azaleas blooming in pinks and whites and purples; rooftop bars beckoning to the streets below.  Even though it rained almost the entire visit, we had a blast walking the streets under shelter of our umbrella, and eating practically every five steps.  Because if you go to Charleston, walking is required to work up the necessary appetite to enjoy the best the city has to offer.

Where to Eat
There's just not enough time to eat everywhere that deserves attention in a weekend trip, but here's a few must have menu items:

  • Softshell crab at Cru Cafe  Unfortunately this is not always on the menu, but if a delivery of blue crabs comes in from their local source then you are in for a treat!  My favorite meal hands down.


  •  The Oyster Sampler at Hank's Seafood This place is a well-oiled machine, turning over tables with a professionalism and grace that is only ever seen in a high tourist city.  But don't get the impression this is a tourist trap; there's a reason this place gets so much traffic!
  • The Pulled Pork Benedict at Poogan's Porch  I was practically one meal away from hospitalization by the time we arrived for Sunday brunch at Poogan's, but this meal made my stomach find some sort of second gear.



  • Lump Crab Cakes at Magnolia's Based on the entrees I saw coming to other tables, I can pretty safely say you'll love anything on the menu.
  • Almond Joy Latte at Toast  I didn't much care for the actual food there, but their coffee bar is legit if you want your enjoyment to-go.

Walk-Off The Calories Insider's tip: Rainbow Row is less of a "place" and more of a way of describing the colorful historic homes near the waterfront of Charleston in general.  Just get lost admiring the mix of French, Spanish, and early American architecture.














Where to Sleep Off Your Walk:
We stayed at the very conveniently located King Charles Inn, reasonably priced, comfortable, and a great place to leave the car for the weekend since you'll be able to walk anywhere you need to go. Even in the rain. 


I also want to take the chance to plug a great place to shop in Charleston, the Historic Charleston Foundation.  They have lovely antiques, historic information about buildings and landmarks around town, and great chinoiserie if you are so inclined. 


All in one lovely place I was able to show my husband all of the items I will need to accumulate to successfully transform our home into my great grandmother's parlor: a Federal mirror (above), Staffordshire dogs, and ceramic parrot lamps.  I'm sure he would have had nightmares for a week if there hadn't been such a heavy food coma going on.