World Oyster’s Review of Buddakan in Philadelphia

World Oyster's Review of Buddakan in Philadelphia: Giant Buddha
Review of Buddakan in Philadelphia: Giant Buddha

My review of Buddakan in Philadelphia, an Asian-inspired restaurant in the historic district, can be summed up in a single word: Yes! From the outside, Buddakan doesn’t appear to be anything special; however, as you step inside, you realize that it’s no ordinary Chinese restaurant. The dimly lit interior throbs with club music. The wooden tables are set with white plates, folded napkins, and lacquered chopsticks. And a giant golden Buddha overlooks it all. Not surprisingly, since the restaurant is part of the Starr group, the cuisine caters to foodies looking for unique takes on traditional dishes.

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World Oyster Kitchen: Watermelon Greek Salad Recipe

World Oyster Kitchen: Watermelon Greek Salad Recipe
World Oyster Kitchen: Watermelon Greek Salad Recipe

For World Oyster kitchen, I recreated a Watermelon Greek Salad recipe I discovered on my Norwegian Cruise Lines trip to Alaska. At the time, I was so hungry that I scarfed down the salad before I thought of photographing it. I’ve had to rely on memory and a little experimentation.

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World Oyster at the Easton Public Market

World Oyster at the Easton Public Market
World Oyster at the Easton Public Market

This week finds World Oyster at the Easton Public Market. Opened in 2015, the market is one of the newer attractions in this small eastern Pennsylvania city. It joins Lafayette College, the Crayola Experience, and the National Canal Museum as a local attraction.

Best Lunch: Mister Lee’s Noodles

Second-Best Lunch: Taylor Taco Shop

Decadent Treat to Go: Macarons from Chocodiem

Most surprising: The quality of the dining options

Most disappointing: The small size limits the number of stalls.

Parking: There’s a small parking lot at the back of the market, but it fills quickly. The best bet is to find street parking nearby.

Within easy driving distance from Bethlehem, Allentown, and New Jersey, the Easton Public Market is a fun way to spend an hour or so. Locals will grab a quick lunch or buy a few things for dinner that night. While the offerings are hardly expansive, the market does offer some gourmet options as well as more traditional fare.

Mister Lee’s Noodles

Chef Lee Chizmar is famous in the Lehigh Valley for his excellent farm-to-table French restaurant Bolete. A 2015 James Beard-nominee, Chizmar knows how to coax maximum flavor out of the simplest ingredients. The opening of Mister Lee’s Noodles in the Easton Public Market caused a lot of excitement. Despite knowing all that, I never would have guessed that ramen noodles could taste as rich and as flavorful as they do from this counter. Most hot bowls are topped with a “60-minute egg” — I assume sous-vide — but you can order your dish without one, as I did. Cold bowls tend to include hard boiled eggs.

World Oyster at the Easton Public Market: Hot and Spicy Ramen at Mister Lee's Noodles
Hot and Spicy Ramen, Without Egg, at Mister Lee’s Noodles

World Oyster at the Easton Public Market rates Mister Lee’s Noodles as the best food by a slim margin.

Recommended: Hot & Spicy Ramen, cold Korean BBQ Beef noodles, whatever the daily special is.

Taylor Taco Shop

I love spicy food, one reason why I love the Hot and Spicy Ramen at Mister Lee’s, but that’s not the only spicy option at the Easton Public Market. Taylor Taco Shop offers customized tacos, burritos, and bowls. Although it’s modeled after Chipotle, the fillings are much more distinctive and delicious. You can customize or order one of their combinations. When I last visited, the options included two vegetarian (The Taza with falafel and the Fried Sweet Potato) and one meat (Roast Duck.) You can also dictate exactly what you want. Bowls with seared mahi-mahi and pork carnitas were excellent.

Chocodiem

For those with a sweet tooth, World Oyster at the Easton Public Market must note Chocodiem. The glass cases display a fabulous array of Belgian chocolates and macarons, and everything tastes as good as it looks. Since I’m partial to French macarons, I can’t leave the market without a box of these. Yes, they are expensive, but oh-so-worth-it!

Macarons at Chocodiem: World Oyster at the Easton Public Market
Macarons at Chocodiem

Chocodiem has two other locations, one in Clinton, NJ, and the other in the Bourse in Philadelphia.

Olive With a Twist

Olive With a Twist offers a selection of cheeses, olives oils, vinegars, and other gourmet items. The cheese selection is more limited than I’d like and offers nothing beyond what I can get at Wegman’s. Regardless, it makes a good stop if you are already in the Public Market.

Dundore and Heister

Although I haven’t shopped at Dundore and Heister myself, people rave about the meats sold here. It offers local, pasture-raised, and organic meats.

Highmark Farmstand

Full of Crepe, foreground, and Highmark Farmstand, background
Full of Crepe, foreground, and Highmark Farmstand, background

This small grocery store brims with produce and gourmet items such as local honey. The Highmark Farmstand‘s produce is pricey, but the display of it looks inviting enough to convince you to “strive for five” — or maybe six or seven. Pick up a jar of butterscotch peanut butter for a treat!

The Kitchen

I’ve have never seen The Kitchen’s space used. As I understand it, you can watch cooking demonstrations, take classes, or attend a food-related education workshop. All I know is that I’d love to cook behind those glass windows.

Other Shops of Note

Silvershell Counter + Kitchen is another Lee Chizmar/Erin Shea venture. On my last visit, it had just opened and looked a little . . . not quite open. They offer freshly shucked oysters, fried clams, and lobster rolls as well as foods-to-go.

Eight Oaks Craft Distillers sells small-batch craft spirits from Lehigh County.

Full of Crepe (my favorite Easton Public Market name!) is a popular stop. You can get made-to-order sweet or savory crepes, plus salads.

Scratch uses a brick pizza oven, and it serves its own beer. I was annoyed when I tried to get pizza there during its supposedly open hours and found a “be back soon” sign. Not good on a Saturday. It did open about 30 minutes later, a little after noon.

The Verdict

Although I wish the Easton Public Market were larger, I still found the stop interesting enough to repeat. The dining options offer something for everyone, from traditionalist to gourmet.

Debbie Lee Wesselmann

World Oyster in Minneapolis

World Oyster in Minneapolis: Downtown
World Oyster in Minneapolis: Downtown

World Oyster in Minneapolis compiles several trips I’ve taken to the upper Midwest city. Minneapolis is a mix of gritty and modern, leafy and stark, urban and suburban.

Most iconic thing to do: Visit the Mall of America

Distinctive feature: The Skyway

Best restaurants for foodies: Alma and The Bachelor Farmer

Most surprising: The thriving arts scene

Most disappointing: Constant road construction

Although less obvious a Midwestern destination than Chicago, it rivals that much larger city in many ways. Whether you are a supporter of the arts, nature lover, or sports fanatic, you’ll likely find a lot to do.

Neighborhoods and Layout

Most people visiting Minneapolis will stay in the downtown area amid high rises connected by the glass-walled Skyway so that you can walk from one to the other without going outside. Its twin city, St. Paul, lies to the east (and slightly south.) The Mississippi Rivers meanders through both cities. Unfortunately, constant road construction often makes it difficult to drive or even walk in some areas.

Areas of interest include Nicollet Mall, a street where you can find restaurants and stores. The Theater District is one or two blocks over, on Hennepin Ave. The Warehouse District, a.k.a. the North Loop, has shops, theaters, and restaurants in older, converted factory buildings. Look for the famous Bob Dylan Mural painted by Eduardo Kobra. Dinkytown, on the eastern side of the Mississippi, is the home of the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities.

During my most recent visit, I stayed at the Loews Minneapolis Hotel. Other downtown options include the Grand Hotel Minneapolis (Hyatt), the Radission Blu, the Hilton, and the Crowne Plaza.

The Mall of America

The Mall of America Amusement Park
The Mall of America Amusement Park

When someone says, “Minneapolis,” most people think of either Mary Tyler Moore or The Mall of America. For better or worse, the mall has become an iconic stop for all who visit the city. It’s located near the airport, making it a great first stop if you arrive too early to check into your hotel.

Unbeknownst to most outside Minnesota, the mall is located not in Minneapolis proper but rather in Bloomington. Its fame derives from its central amusement park, with its roller coasters, kiddie rides, and other attractions, in addition to its wide range of stores. Worth visiting beyond the stores and amusement park: Flyover America for its immersive, thrilling tour of the U.S. from the air and CMX Market Cinema Experience for its assigned recliner seats, gourmet popcorn lab, pizza station, and full bar. Kids will beg to visit the Lego store and the enormous Lego display outside of it.

If you’re hungry, don’t worry! FireLake Grill House, inside the Radission Blu, offers sit-down service and menu items from flatbreads to salads to Alaskan Wild Salmon to bacon-wrapped quail legs. They have their own apiary on top of the mall where they harvest their honey. Burger Burger not only offers burgers and fries but also Impossible Burgers in five different styles for vegans; the spiked shakes and full bar surprise at this “fast casual” restaurant. If you have kids in tow, try the Rainforest Café. For snacks, you can find edible cookie dough, French macarons, chocolates, and espresso/cappucino. You’ll find the likely mall suspects as well as chains such as Bubba Gump. This blog doesn’t have enough room to list all the food possibilities.

The Arts

World Oyster in Minneapolis must feature the arts in the city since they are some of the best in the Midwest. The city’s active arts community thrives throughout the year.

Sunset View of the Mississippi from the Guthrie Theater
Sunset View of the Mississippi from the Guthrie Theater’s Amber Box

Productions at the Guthrie Theater, one of the premier regional theaters in the United States, include everything from musicals to experimental plays. A tour of the building includes the Amber Box and the cantilevered Endless Bridge. Even if you don’t see a play, you’ll get spectacular views of the Mississippi River.

The world-class Walker Arts Center houses contemporary art with changing exhibits. The museum embraces multimedia pieces such as film of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and work by composer John Cage. You’ll find well-known contemporary artists such as Rauschenburg, Frankenthaler, Hopper, Warhol, and Calder among lesser-known but nonetheless compelling artists.

Spoonbridge and Cherry
Spoonbridge and Cherry at the Minnepolis Sculpture Garden

Nearby, don’t miss the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and its famous Spoonbridge and Cherry by Oldenburg and van Bruggen.

If more traditional or cultural art is your style, visit the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The collection ranges from Asian art to the decorative arts to European art to photography and more.

The live music scene is equally vibrant. Whether you like rock, jazz, or classical, you can find it in Minneapolis. The Minnesota Orchestra, located on Nicollet Mall, performs from mid-September through the first week of August, with more popular music played in the warmer months. Huge pop and rock stars appear in concert at the Target Center.

If you are a Prince fan, you shouldn’t miss a tour of Paisley Park where the Artist Formally Known As . . . lived and recorded/produced his hits.

Sports

Target Field, home to the Minnesota Twins
Target Field, home to the Minnesota Twins

World Oyster in Minneapolis would be remiss to discuss the city without including its sports. The Minnesota Twins (MLB) play in Target Field. The Timberwolves (NBA) and the Lynx (WNBA) play in Target Center. The Minnesota Wild (NHL) play across the river in St. Paul at the Xcel Energy Center. And the Vikings (NFL) kick off at the U.S. Bank Stadium. Most of these venues are located in downtown, close to a variety of hotels. With the exception of the Vikings’, most sports tickets are easier to acquire than they are in larger cities.

Mill City Museum

World Oyster in Minneapolis: Ruins at the Mill City Museum
Looking down into the ruins from the 1878 Washburn A Mill explosion.

You’ll see the competing flour company signs on opposite sides of the Mississippi: Pillsbury on the east bank and Gold Medal on the west. Although these buildings are no longer in use for the actual milling of flour, they harken to Minneapolis’ past. The Gold Medal Building houses the Mill City Museum, a fascinating look at the city’s industrial history, including the Washburn A Mill Flour Explosion. The rooftop observation deck offers a fantastic view of the river and the falls. Works by local artists adorn the walls throughout.

Nature and the Outdoors

The residents of Minnepolis and Minnesota more generally love the outdoors. The Land of 10,000 Lakes provides numerous opportunities for cycling, boating, walking, and, in the winter, skating. Parks within the borders of the Twin Cities include Minnehaha Park, Powderhorn Park, Lake Harriet, and Loring Park.

The Majorie McNeely Conservatory in St. Paul’s Como Park is well worth the visit for plant and flower lovers. It houses indoor and as well as outdoor gardens. The adjacent Como Park Zoo entertains children and adults alike. The park itself is great for picnics, cycling, or just walking around. Parking can be a challenge on busy days — we had to park along the road and walk a distance to the botanical gardens.

Outside of the City: Lake Towns

Excelsior, a quaint town located on Lake Minnetonka, is only a 25 minute drive from downtown Minneapolis. The town has many cute stores and restaurants. Be forewarned, though: These businesses can be closed on holidays.

From Excelsior, you can book a steamboat cruise on Lake Minnetonka to Wayzata. If you end up in Wayzata, make sure to eat at 6Smith, a fabulous casual restaurant. In addition to their regular menus, they have menus for vegans and kids. They have a full bar and an excellent wine list.

Places to Eat in Minneapolis

Probably the best restaurant I’ve tried is Alma, located near the University of MN, but the Warehouse District’s The Bachelor Farmer runs close behind. Both feature seasonal ingredients and innovative dishes. Service is uniformly excellent, and dress is business casual. For a fun bar experience before or after dinner at The Bachelor Farmer, try the speakeasy style Marvel Bar. Walk around the back of the brick building and down the stairs. The bar has no signage, but once you step through the door, you’ll know you’re in the right place.

I also love Barrio, a Latin American tapas restaurant and bar. Due to its small size, you will want to make reservations for dinner. The Nicollet Island Inn Restaurant serves traditional food in a white tablecloth inn setting. If you like quirky cuisine, try Hell’s Kitchen. We love our breakfasts at the Henhouse Eatery, although they serve all day and have a full bar. The bakery is awesome — try their gooey cinnamon buns served with a gratuitous dollop of butter. Make reservations or else plan to wait up to an hour for a table. If you are in the Northeast neighborhood in search of breakfast/brunch, try Hazel’s Northeast.

The Verdict

Minneapolis offers tremendous range, especially when it comes to the arts and sports. World Oyster in Minneapolis attempts to give readers highlights of the city, but it’s by no means comprehensive. I’d be happy to hear other suggestions of what to see.

Debbie Lee Wesselmann

The Best of Seattle in Just Two Days

The Best of Seattle in Just Two Days: View from the Space Needle
View of Seattle from the Space Needle

After our Alaskan cruise, we planned to stay an extra day, and so we wanted to see the best of Seattle in just two days. We like to pack as much as we can into our trips, and that requires careful planning. Because we concentrated more on Alaska than our stopover in Seattle, we needed to decide our itinerary at the last minute.

Most memorable: Stepping into the first Chihuly gallery

Most surprising: How informative the Argosy Cruise was

Best Spot for Oyster Lovers: Shuckers Oyster Bar

Most disappointing: We didn’t use our night ticket at the Space Needle.

Recommendations: If you plan to visit the three major attractions plus one more covered by the CityPass, it’s worth purchasing.

We settled on the purchase of a City Pass for $99 to get entry tickets to the top things to do in Seattle. The booklet contains redeemable vouchers for the most popular Seattle attractions, at times allowing us to skip the lines. By purchasing it, the City Pass determined what sights we would see. All we needed to do was decide the order in which we would see them. Since a City Pass is good for nine days from purchase, visitors who plan to stay in the city longer can spread out their activities. But, really, if you want to see the best of Seattle in just two days, this booklet is the way to go.

Chihuly Garden and Glass

Because we were told by our concierge at the Fairmont to buy our City Pass anywhere but the Space Needle, where lines could be long, we decided to start our tour at the Chihuly Garden and Glass. The garden is conveniently located next to the Space Needle and the Museum of Pop Culture, two attractions included in the pass.

A Whirwind Tour of Seattle: Gallery in the Chihuly Garden and Glass.
Gallery in the Chihuly Garden and Glass

Neither my husband nor I expected much out of this stop; however, we were blown away the minute we stepped into the first gallery. The museum features whole rooms of glass sculptures by Dave Chihuly and his atelier.

Chilhuly Garden, looking toward the Glass House
In the Chihuly Garden, looking toward the Glass House and its chandeliers

Outside, glass sculptures decorate the garden. The colored glass highlights the surrounding plants by matching their colors or contrasting with them. Sometimes the shape of the glass mimicked that of the flora.

Surprisingly, this stop ended up being one of the highlights of whirlwind tour of Seattle.

The CityPass requires you to choose between Chihuly Gardens and Glass OR the Pacific Science Center.

The Space Needle

Every visit to Seattle should include a visit to the Space Needle, if only to say that you’ve been there. The City Pass entitles you two admissions in a 24-hour period. Most people with this ticket visit once during the day and then again at night. Because our hotel was so far away, we went only once, during the day.

View of the Chilhuly Garden through a glass floor panel in the Space Needle
View of the Chilhuly Garden through a glass floor panel in the Space Needle.

If you’ve ever been in an observation tower in a major city, you’ll know what to expect atop the Space Needle. It has two observation floors, one stationary and one slowly revolving with glass viewing panels in the floor. On a sunny day, the views of Elliot Bay, Mount Ranier, Puget Sound, and the city itself are spectacular.

The Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP)

The Museum of Pop Culture ended up as the second surprise attraction. Located in the same area as the Chihuly Garden and the Space Needle, the dramatic building, designed by Frank Gehry, houses an astonishing collection.

The museum is divided by genre: science fiction, fantasy, horror, and pop music with some special exhibits. We saw artifacts from Star Trek, Men in Black, The Wizard of Oz, Lord of the Rings, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, among too many to mention. The Guitar Gallery will appeal to music lovers, as will the exhibits on Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Jimi Hendrix, and Prince. I did not expect this museum to qualify as the best of Seattle in just two days, but it ended up being one of our more memorable stops.

The City Pass requires you to choose between MoPOP and the Woodland Park Zoo.

The Seattle Aquarium

The Seattle Aquarium
The Seattle Aquarium

Families with children flock to the Seattle Aquarium, but even as adults, we enjoyed seeing sea creatures and marine animals. The jellyfish and octopus underwater displays are popular, as are the above/under water exhibits featuring river and sea otters, seals, and tufted puffins. The emphasis is on conservation and education. Although this stop isn’t necessary to see the best of Seattle in just two days, we found that it added depth to the kinds of things we did.

Argosy Cruises Harbor Tour

The Best of Seattle in Just Two Days:  View of Mount Ranier from the Argosy
The best of Seattle in just two days: View of Mount Ranier from the Argosy

We almost blew off the included Argosy Harbor Tour. After all, we had just gotten off a ship with far more interesting scenery. I envisioned a bland putt-putting around Elliot Bay. But we had our CityPass vouchers and time to do it. What a surprise! Thanks to our commentator, we learned a tremendous amount about Seattle’s waterways, its shipping history, the specific ships we passed, and the city itself. We even got a spectular view of Mount Ranier. Even with your CityPass voucher, you do need to make a reservation, so check the timetable.

Pike Place Public Market

Just as visitors to Seattle should see the Space Needle, they should explore the famous Pike Place Market. The fish, produce, flower, specialty food, and crafts stalls offer something for everyone. Even if you don’t want to buy, you’ll find a feast for your eyes. You can eat at one of the restaurants or purchase items to-go. It fits nicely into a whirlwind tour of Seattle because you can breeze through or stay longer, depending on your time constraints.

Famously, the original Starbucks is located outside the Public Market, but the lines are long. The company has even named a coffee roast after this location. Originally, we had hoped to eat breakfast there and were willing to wait until we saw that they did not sell food. We quickly noticed that people bought their coffee, then waited in line at the restaurant next door. Because we did not want to wait in two long lines for what we had hoped would be a quick breakfast, we passed. After all, we’ve had Starbucks coffee all over the world.

Ye Olde Curiosity Shop

For those who like the macabre, Ye Olde Curiosity Shop calls your name. It’s a combination souvenir shop and gruesome Hall of Fame. It boasts of the largest collection of shrunken heads in the world. As if that’s a good thing. You’ll also find the type of oddities under glass that you’d see in the carnival sideshow of yore. Shiver. The shop is located at the end of a pier near the Argosy dock.

Strolling the Waterfront

The Seattle waterfront, located on Alaskan Way, hums with activity. Especially if you visit the aquarium and/or take an Argosy cruise, you’ll find yourself along this busy stretch. No matter your interests, you’ll find something to do. You can buy a T-shirt or grab an ice cream or take out a loaf from the Alaskan Sourdough Bakery or ride the Seattle Great Wheel.

Dining

Even in two days, we were able to find some great dining options. We had a delicious lunch at Shuckers Oyster Bar, brunch at The Capital Grille, an upscale Italian dinner at the Vintage Kimpton’s Tulio, and a satisfying Happy Hour at Loulay, the last of which also served as our dinner.

The Verdict

Thanks to the CityPass, our whirlwind tour of Seattle in just two days took us to many of the city’s major attractions. Although the pass helped us plan by narrowing our options, we were also able to visit a few other areas.

Debbie Lee Wesselmann

Dining in Auckland New Zealand

Dining in Auckland New Zealand: amuse-bouche at the Sugar Club
“Snack” at the Sugar Club

On a brief trip to Auckland, New Zealand, my husband and I dined at some of the city’s best restaurants, from casual to upscale. Not surprisingly, we discovered that dining in Auckland New Zealand can rival that of any major international city. I named two of the restaurants below, The Grove and The Sugar Club, as two of the best restaurants I visited in 2019.

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Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa: Review

Kimpton Lorient Hotel & Spa Lobby
Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa lobby

Years ago, when it first opened, I stayed at the Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa in Alexandria, VA. I wasn’t a fan, so I approached a recent visit with some trepidation. Not to worry! As the hotel has come into its own, everything about it has improved to become one of the better lodging options in Old Town Alexandria.

Décor: Contemporary mixed with historic accents

Favorite in-hotel experience: Happy Hour at Brabo

Location Advantage: Quiet end of King St.

Location Disadvantage: Somewhat shabby block.

Most distinctive public area: The courtyard you walk through to get to the entrance.

The Property

Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa courtyard
Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa courtyard

The Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa mixes contemporary décor with accents of Georgian architecture. For example, the property is set back in a traditional courtyard, with brick pavers underfoot and an old-fashioned clock in the center. The hotel nods toward historic Alexandria while still emphasizing contemporary clean lines and colors.

Public area in the Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa

The public areas of the Kimpton Lorien are open and inviting. Because the hotel, like all Kimptons, offers a free wine hour starting at 5 pm, it has a large sitting room area adjacent to the lobby to accommodate guests. You can sit and read, or meet with friends, or chat with other guests. Brabo, the hotel’s restaurant, offers meals and an excellent Happy Hour.

The Room

King room at the Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa
King room at the Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa

Our king room was clean and modern, mostly white but with green/blue Rorschach blots on the wall above the bed. It had a large screen Samsung TV, a huge and wide mirror for checking dress from head to foot, and a long desk with mini bar fridge and storage.

For those like me who travel with tons of electronic devices, the room had plenty of open outlets. I especially appreciated that outlets, plus USB ports, on both sides of the bed.

The bathroom had a tiled shower with clear glass shower door. The Kimpton no longer uses individual bottles of shampoo, shower gel, and conditioner. Instead, you’ll find huge refillable dispensers of them, something I hate. Those dispensers make me feel as though I’m in a cheap hotel. Likewise, the small, rough, and thin bath towels didn’t match the hotel’s image.

The Staff

The desk clerks must be on the lookout for returning guests because they seemed to open the doors remotely when we approached them. Every employee we interacted with met us with a smile and complete attention. Housekeeping was thorough, resulting in a clean, fresh room every day.

The Location

The Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa sits on the far end King Street, close to the Alexandria Metro station and about a mile from Waterfront Park. Because of its location, it tends to be less touristy and therefore more quiet than other Old Town hotels. That said, everything is still within walkable distance: the historic sites, the restaurants, and the stores.

The Verdict

I would stay again at the Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa without hesitation. Because I’m a walker, I didn’t mind the distance to the waterfront. Besides, most things in Old Town Alexandria were much closer.

For nearby dining options, see my post Dining in Old Town Alexandria.

Debbie Lee Wesselmann

Cascade The Restaurant: Review

Filet of beef at Cascade The Restaurant
Filet of beef with chimicurri, sweet potato, oyster mushrooms, and goat cheese purée

If a friend had not told me about Cascade The Restaurant at Durham Springs, I would have never tried it. Without this recommendation, I would have missed out on the finest dining available in upper Bucks County, PA. Located in the country amid rolling hills, this restaurant offers innovative dishes that change weekly, perhaps even nightly.

Recommended dishes: Everything. No kidding.

Most surprising: The location, seemingly in the middle of nowhere

Cuisine: Innovative American

Dress: Business casual to dressy

Décor: Modern rustic

Price: Expensive for the area

Under New Ownership, in rural Bucks County

View from a table at Cascade the Restaurant
View from a table at Cascade the Restaurant

I’m shocked that such a fabulous restaurant exists only a few minutes from my home, in the country no less. I’ve had comparable meals in major cities such as San Francisco, Auckland, and New York at higher prices. Of course, the rent/property costs are much more expensive in those areas. That’s not to say that Cascade the Restaurant is cheap.

Many local residents know the building as the Cascade Lodge; however, new ownership has transformed it and stepped it up to a new level. Its new name, Cascade the Restaurant at Durham Springs, evokes the past while signaling the change. Owners Dan and Ian are hands-on management. Chances are, one of them will stop by your table to inquire about your experience. Kudos to them for hiring chef de cuisine Jon McCain, who has a palate for interesting flavors and an artistic eye. After all, when you’re paying for an upscale meal, you want the food to look as beautiful as it tastes.

Service is unpretentious, attentive, but sometimes awkward. I attribute that the newness of the restaurant. Still, the wait staff could use some better instruction on the menu items.

Seasonal Ingredients, With Artistic Flare

Wild-caught sockeye salmon at Cascade the Restaurant at Durham Springs.
Wild-caught sockeye salmon with rhubarb and blood orange sauce, yellow tomatoes

We’ve been to Cascade the Restaurant several times now, and each time the menu has been different. Chef Jon McCain uses seasonal ingredients to highlight the freshest flavors available. For instance, at one visit, I had a blow-me-away sweet corn risotto with crabmeat and shrimp, topped with fiddlehead ferns. At another visit, my husband ordered seasonal wild-caught sockeye salmon with late spring’s rhubarb underneath. My beef filet was adorned with a pansy flower for an edible pop of color.

Burrata appetizer, Cascade the Restaurant at Durham Springs.
Burrata cheese on a bed of rosemary sugar, with beets

Although I’d recommend ordering anything on a given menu, some dishes don’t rise to the level of others. For example, on a Wednesday night pris fixe menu, my scallops were slightly overdone. The rosemary sugar under a full burrata didn’t add as much interest as I had hoped. Despite those disappointments, everything else over four visits has been delicious and perfect.

The Events Center

Owners Dan and Ian have preserved and updated the events center for weddings and parties. Just outside the doors and next to the brook, they have graded a two-tier lawn area that extends to the duck pond.

Although I have not been in the events center itself, I’ve looked into it via the windows in the dining room. It carries over the same décor theme from the restaurant in a larger, open area.

Extras

Cascade the Restaurant at Durham Springs offers free valet parking in a gravel lot just across the road. Recently, they’ve announced the upcoming opening of a roof top café with lighter fare and more casual atmosphere.

The restaurant has a full bar. Although the cocktails are excellent, the wine list is limited, particularly in the by-the-glass offerings. Given the caliber of the restaurant, I wish they’d employ a Coravin to offer better wines by the glass. A Coravin allows restaurants to serve wines at per-bottle prices (that is, bottle price divided by five) without risk of a wine going bad over time. Even without a Coravin, however, the bottle list should be larger.

Recommendations

Make a reservation. Although the dining room hasn’t been completely sold out on our visits, accolades and word-of-mouth might change that. You don’t want to drive into the country, only to find out that you cannot get a table. Most of all, though, prepare yourself for an elegant and unpretentious dining experience.

— Debbie Lee Wesselmann

Three Days in Auckland

Three days in Auckland, view from Sky Tower
Auckland and its harbor, taken from the Sky Tower

Earlier this year, my husband and I spent three days in Auckland, New Zealand. If you think that’s too short, you’re right. The sprawling city by itself isn’t as interesting as Wellington; however, Auckland is a good jumping-off point to explore North Island.

Most memorable: A day on the island Tiritiri Matangi

Best Restaurant for Foodies: The Grove

Most Surprising: The excellent food at the Sugar Club, atop the Sky Tower

Most disappointing: The city itself

To Glowworm or not to Glowworm

We faced one of our biggest dilemmas before we even left the United States. Should we spend an entire day and hefty fees to see the Waitomo glowworm caves nearly three hours from the city? And if we did, should we bundle that with another stop? Were 5-10 silent minutes floating under the worms worth giving up a whole day with only three days in Auckland itself? The answer is, with caveats, yes. After all, we’d probably never get the chance again to see glowworms.

Because we hadn’t rented a car, we chose to book a GreatSightsNZ tour with Viator that included the caves, the Agrodome, and the hot springs and geysers at Rotorua. Our tour left at 7:30 am and returned to Auckland at around 6 pm. We decided to skip the Hobbiton bundle since we have no special affinity for the movie. GreatSightsNZ gave the option of stopping at Rotorua instead of returning to Auckland, a ticket that a handful of people on our tour bought.

Our tour guide Rachale mingled stories about her youth with the history of the land to help pass the time on the road.

The Caves

Our first stop was at the Waitomo Caves. Because you cannot take photos inside for risk of harming the glowworms, the tour guide makes you line up in front of a blue screen before you go inside. Cheesy, yes. We gamely pointed to the imaginary worms, but had no intention of buying the faked photograph at the end.

The tour of the cave took longer than I expected, mostly because our guide explained cave formation and facts about the worms. We saw a couple of dangling worms up close and several dotting the cave roof above us.

Finally, in complete silence and darkness, we boarded one of the boats that glided through the largest cave chamber. Overhead, thousands of blue lights glittered. The boat ride didn’t take long, and we were done. Because I knew what to expect, I wasn’t disappointed, although I understand why some are.

The Agrodome

I considered the Agrodome Rotorua the throw-away portion of the tour, but it turned out to be more interesting than I expected. By the time we arrived, a light rain had begun to fall. We filed inside to watch a sheep get her first shearing, then headed to the outside ring to watch a sheepdog-in-training herd her charges. The dog was so new and enthusiastic that the sheep just gave up in the chaos and went into the pen of their own accord. At least it was humorous!

Alpaca baby at the Agrodome
Alpaca baby at the Agrodome

We boarded a tram for a tour of the facilities. “Farming” in New Zealand means animal husbandry for the most part. We saw sheep, cattle, deer, and alpacas, including an adorable baby.

Naturally, they had a gift shop where we had a few minutes to browse.

Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve

We arrived at our last stop, the Rotorua Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve, under a steady rain. The thermal reserve is akin to a mini Yellowstone, with geysers, hot pools, and mud pots. Unfortunately, the rain marred our visit. We saw no geysers, either, during our short stay. But the hot springs and kiwi house were worth the visit. The Maori cultural show was mildly interesting.

Thermal Reserve at Rotorua
Thermal Reserve at Rotorua

With the right weather and timing, this could have been fantastic. Even so, we enjoyed seeing this part of New Zealand.

Tiritiri Matangi

Although we should have booked this tour from the States, we locked into it only the day before. We didn’t have the ability to print the Viator tickets, and the ferry staff had issues scanning what I had on my phone. Thank goodness they finally waved us on board.

View from Tiritiri Mantangi
View from Tiritiri Mantangi

Tiritiri Matangi was absolutely the best thing we did in New Zealand. Hands down. No contest. We are bird lovers, and this sanctuary island without predators harbors some amazing species. Bring your binoculars! Even the 45-minute ferry ride offers views. And bring food and water since none may be purchased here. Even if you have only three days in Auckland and want to see the city, a trip to this island is well worth it.

Choose your path carefully, and keep track of the time. Once the ferry leaves in the afternoon, you won’t have another way off the island. Each ticket to Tiritiri Matangi entitles you to a guided tour. Avail yourself of this. Without our guide, I never would have known the history of the island, nor would I have known what to look for.

The island has forests, grasslands, and shorelines that attract a wide variety of birds. Despite all the birds I saw, I encountered none that I had seen before. Even the New Zealand pigeon was different — a giant about the size of a Thanksgiving turkey.

Other Things to Do

We walked to the New Zealand Maritime Museum from our hotel, the SkyCity Grand (not to be confused with the regular Sky City hotel down the block.) The Maritime Museum was the runner-up to “most surprising” aspect of our stay. I had expected little and found tons of intriguing facts and artifacts, from Maori canoes to World Cup racing boats. Not generally a fan of maritime stuff, I surprised myself by wishing for another 30 minutes to spend there. Alas, we had a lunch reservation to get to.

Because we had already settled on Auckland as a city of tours, we opted last minute for a Greylines city tour. We rode around the city on a giant coach bus, just the two of us and the driver. Although the driver was informative and we got to see things we wouldn’t have otherwise, I wouldn’t recommend this unless you, like us, have an afternoon to kill.

Sky Tower in Auckland
Sky Tower in SkyCity complex

The Sky Tower, located in the SkyCity complex, offers fantastic views of the city, plus thrill-seeking bungee jumping. We didn’t go all the way up. Instead, we ate at the Sugar Club for lunch, a pricy but well-worth-it restaurant with the same view.

Our three days in Auckland were well-spent, even if we didn’t spend much time in Auckland itself.

Debbie Lee Wesselmann

Loews Minneapolis Hotel: Review

Room at the Loews Minneapolis Hotel
Room at the Loews Minneapolis Hotel

I recently stayed at the Loews Minneapolis Hotel in downtown Minneapolis for an extended weekend. The hotel itself was comfortable with a modern décor. Theoretically, the location was also good, across the street from the Target Center, two blocks from Target Field, and a five-minute walk to Nicolette Mall. Unfortunately, what we experienced inside this hotel did not match what we experienced outside.

Décor: Contemporary

Favorite in-hotel experience: Cocktails at Relevé

Location Advantage: Walking distance to event centers and restaurants.

Location Disadvantage: Weekend night crazyiness

Fun part of stay: Sharing a hotel with the Milwaukee Brewers

The Property Itself

Although the Loews Minneapolis Hotel has a small lobby, the area offers some low, upholstered, bench-type seating for ten or so people. Off the lobby, the Apothecary Bar offers drinks and snacks until 5 pm, when the bar upstairs, Relevé, opens. A Starbuck’s is just outside the hotel’s side door and across the hall.

Relevé Champagne Bar
Relevé Champagne Bar, on the fourth floor

The architect for the Loews Minneapolis Hotel came up with a strange design, probably for security. To access your room, you must take the elevator to the fourth floor where you exit and proceed to a different bank of elevators. The second bank of elevators require you to use your card key to get to your room’s floor. Since the fourth floor is public space both for the Relevé Champagne Bar and the dining room, people can’t gain access to your floor without a key.

Although Relevé specializes in sparkling wines, it is a full service bar with a limited Happy Hour menu. Check the hotel signs for hours. You may choose to sit at the bar or at a chair next to a small table.

We did not eat in the dining room because we chose to patronize Minneapolis’s excellent restaurants. Also on the fourth floor, you’ll find a grab-and-go market.

The Room

We booked a room with a king-size bed at the Loews Minneapolis Hotel. Although not huge, we found that it had ample room for two. My husband always claims the desk for himself, so I was glad to have an upholstered chair with a side table for myself. The calming grays-and-white went well with the accent wall of blue and green.

Bathroom at the Loews Minnaepolis Hotel
Bathroom

The bathroom had a contemporary green glass sink and a walk-in, tiled shower. The bath towels were small and rough. I’ve had bigger, softer towels at a Spring Hill Suites, and so thought the bath linens did not match the quality of the rest of the hotel.

The room contained plenty of power outlets, particularly at the long desk. The large screen TV, Keurig coffee maker, and bedside lamps completed the amenities in an otherwise spare room. Except for the rough towels, the room fit the chain’s “luxury” self-branding.

The Staff

We were greeted every time we entered by a friendly and efficient staff. They opened the door for us, both when we left and when we returned. When we had a question, they had an accurate answer. The largely unseen housekeeping workers kept the room clean and well-stocked. In terms of the staff, Loews Minneapolis Hotel couldn’t have done better.

The Neighborhood

During the day, we found nothing undesirable about the hotel’s surrounding area, but on Saturday night, all hell broke loose just a half-block away. The sidewalks filled with partying and often drunken (or high) people. A fatal stabbing occurred that night just two blocks away. While the stabbing may have been an anomaly, the rowdy pedestrians probably were not. We had previously stayed at the Grand Hotel Minneapolis several blocks away, and we had experienced none of this.

The Verdict

We loved the short walk to Target Field and local restaurants but not the Saturday night madness. After serious consideration, we decided that we would probably not return to the Loews Minneapolis Hotel in downtown Minneapolis solely because of the neighborhood at night. Even though the Grand Hotel has changed ownership from Kimpton to Hyatt, we may return there next time.

Debbie Lee Wesselmann

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