Dining in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia

Fresh bread and house-made butter at Vermillion
Fresh Bread and House-made Butter at Vermillion

Two and a half days in Alexandria, Virginia? For me, that’s about perfect, especially when it comes to dining in Old Town. Since the DC metro stops right at the end of King St., you can easily combine visits to both Alexandria and Washington. Below I’ve reviewed some of my favorite restaurants in Alexandria, VA. The historic section may be small, but it has plenty of dining options. We stayed at the Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa, and everything below was within walking distance.

Vermillion

My favorite meal, hands down, was at Vermillion, a small, cozy restaurant on King Street. You won’t find white tablecloths here, although the food certainly deserves them. The chef creates dishes that sound simple but are really a complex melding of flavors and textures. Even the butter is house-made.

The menu changes with the season, so you can’t expect everything to be the same; however, you just know from the first bite that you can’t go wrong with anything.

Cocktails are excellent, and they have a wide selection of draft beer. The wine list is limited.

Recommended: roasted Wellfleet oysters; anchovy toasts (two tiny pieces); prime New York strip steak; Skuna Bay Salmon; Marcona almond tart.

Hank’s Oyster Bar

Hank's Oyster Bar
Window seat at Hank’s Oyster Bar

We lunched at Hank’s Oyster Bar, also on King St. and my second favorite dining experience in Alexandria. The restaurant has a typical long, dark bar in one room and a small, bright dining room in the other. You can eat in either room.This casual restaurant has a large selection of oysters — 7, the day I ate there — so of course we had to start with oysters on the half shell. (My favorites were Glacier Point and Salty Wolf. )

Neither one of us could resist the Maine lobster roll with Old Bay-seasoned fries. Yum! Stuffed with sweet Maine lobster meat, easy on the mayo, they were worth every penny.

Lobster roll at Hank's Oyster Bar
Lobster roll at Hank’s Oyster Bar

In a distinctive touch, Hank’s serves a small bowl of chocolate chunks when the bill arrives.

Recommended: oysters any way you like them; Maine lobster roll.

Brabo

We stayed at the Kimpton Lorien Hotel and Spa on King St. Their brasserie, Brabo, is a hopping place. For convenience, we ate there twice, for Happy Hour and for dinner before we left for home. We thoroughly enjoyed both the food and the drinks. My husband was a huge fan of Le Burger, a hamburger topped with gruyere, black truffle aoili, and pickles. The only dish I wasn’t wild about was the roasted cauliflower with capers. The flavors just didn’t meld.

Recommended: mussels mariniere; cheese and charcuterie board; Bartlett pear and goat cheese salad; Le Burger.

The Wharf

Sidewalk seating at The Wharf
Sidewalk seating at The Wharf

After a full morning and early afternoon of sightseeing, I turned once again to King St., this time closer to the waterfront. I had wanted to try The Warehouse because of its excellent reviews; however, the day was so gorgeous that I couldn’t bring myself to enter the darkened interior. Instead, I opted for The Wharf and its sidewalk seating area. (They also serve inside, in a dark and clubby space.)

I ordered a glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc and a crab cake. The food and service were competent, good without being excellent. Of course, what I really wanted was to enjoy the day, and The Wharf gave me that.

Recommended: Sidewalk seating for lunch.

Crabcake at The Wharf
Crabcake at The Wharf

Bastille

One of my favorite restaurants from past visits to Alexandria was Bastille. I had high expectations, and I was disappointed. The restaurant has located to a more traditional building that makes it feel somewhat staid and like any other French restaurant. Gone are the exciting, modern vibes of a farm-to-table restaurant.

The chef offers a Monday pris fixe bistro menu of three courses for only $29. They also offer $29 bottles of wine. Both are great deals. Still, the waiter actually asked me how I would like my duck confit cooked. (Duck confit is a dish slow-cooked in fat to preserve it.) The dishes were flavorful and artfully plated, but all far too salty, as if prepared by a smoker.

Recommended (if you don’t mind salty food): duck confit with roasted pear, greens, and potato chunks; filet of beef with fries; arugula salad with salmon rillette, radishes, and cucumber

Debbie Lee Wesselmann

Inaugural Alaskan Cruise for the Norwegian Joy

Alaska Cruise on the Norwegian Joy, the ship
The Norwegian Joy, the night before her maiden Alaska cruise.

In early May, I took an Alaska cruise on the Norwegian Joy. My husband and I weren’t always cruise people. But when we decided several years ago to give it a try, we chose Norwegian Cruise Lines most because of its “freestyle dining.” We’ve been hooked ever since.

Most Memorable: whale watching; cruising Glacier Bay

Best Food: Le Bistro on the Joy

Most Surprising: We expected Juneau to be more of a city than it was.

Most Disappointing: The foggy/rainy weather often obscured the views.

We decided on an Alaska cruise on the Norwegian Joy because the price seemed reasonable and the incentives were right. Unbeknowst to us, we had booked not only the first week of the season, but also the inaugural sailing of the Joy after a massive renovation. Many passengers chose the cruise specifically to experience the ship as a (sort of) brand new addition to NCL’s fleet.

We tend to cruise for the excursions. Other people cruise to cruise. Norwegian makes it easy for both types of travelers.

The Ports-of-Call

The Joy’s itinerary doesn’t always include Glacier Bay, and that was a must for me. The ship cruised round-trip from Seattle, stopping in Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, and an evening in Victoria, BC to satisfy foreign port regulations.

Although technically not a port-of-call, the day spent cruising through Glacier Bay is an all-day affair, with national park rangers providing lectures and commentary in public areas and on the TV.

The Ship: Joy, Indeed

We absolutely loved the Joy. The Observation Lounge, two-stories of glass viewing at the bow with small seating niches extending to the forward stairs, surprised us since we had not experienced anything similar on other ships.

Forward Observation Lounge
Forward Observation Lounge

You have to fight to get seats in this area, particular when the ship enters Glacier Bay. Most of the best seats were taken by 5 am that day, although I found a window seat in one of the niches by arriving a few minutes before 6 am. Good thing I was still on East Coast time!

The Observation Lounge has its own bar, plus three continental breakfast/snack areas. One of the ship’s Starbucks is located adjacent to the bar, although you can get regular coffee at one of the two longer food areas. On Glacier Bay and at-sea days, the crew sets up Irish coffee carts.

But the Observation Lounge isn’t the only attractive area in the ship. Our mini-suite with balcony was comfortable and even roomy, although storage was reduced from some of the other Norwegian ships we had experienced.

We loved the District Brew House, with its draft and bottled beer as well as cocktails, not so much for the drinks but for the bright and modern atmosphere. With its rugged, wood-and-glass décor, we felt as though we had left the ship for another space.

Juneau

Having cruised before only in the Caribbean, the arrival and departure schedules of this cruise took getting used to. We docked in Juneau at about 2:00 pm. Our first excursion departed at 3 pm and was expected to last until 8:30 pm. Like everything else on this cruise, we arrived back at the ship late, after the all-aboard time. Fortunately, if you book excursions through the cruise line, they guarantee that they won’t leave port without you.

We chose the Mendenhall Glacier and whale-watching combination excursion, hoping to get as much out of the port as we could. On the coach ride to the glacier, we saw a few bald eagles and a black bear, just out of hibernation.

The tour allowed an hour at the Mendenhall Glacier site, although we could have used more time, especially since the line in the women’s restroom was 15 minutes long. We were able to walk down to the edge of the lake, photograph the glacier, walk up to another viewing point — but couldn’t explore the visitor’s center in addition to that.

Mendenhall Glacier
Mendenhall Glacier

Also in the Juneau area . . . .

From the glacier, our coach bus took us to our whale watching tour on a relatively large, heated boat with an open top deck for viewing. As with many of our stops in Alaska, it was in the 40s and drizzling, but that didn’t stop us from climbing upstairs to witness from above the pod of orcas right next to the boat. We also saw several humpbacks, including a mother and her male calf.

Skagway

Skagway looks like a typical gold rush town with its boxy wooden buildings, albeit it now occupied with jewelry stores and souvenir shops.

Skagway, Alaska: Alaska cruise on the Norwegian Joy
Skagway, Alaska

We chose to ride the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway one way to the top and then to take a coach to a suspension bridge, then through the Yukon Territory back to the ship.

Thanks to the entertaining commentary, the train ride helped us understand the history and the geography of the area. While the weather obscured more than we would have liked, the ride offered some memorable views, including the sight of the train’s engine passing through tunnel ahead. If you do this and plan to go only one way, choose the left side for better views.

And into Canada . . . .

Crossing into Canada at the top end of the ride, the skies turned miraculously blue, with white-capped mountains in the distance.

I expected more of the suspension bridge — I had thought we would take a short hike to it when it was more or less a roadside attraction — but the stop was worthwhile regardless, with gorgeous views of the river below and the white-capped mountains beyond. The ride through the Yukon Territory was socked in by fog, thus obscuring what we had expected to see. We did see another black bear walking alongside the road.

Glacier Bay

We secured seats by 6 am on the port side of the Observation Lounge. Starboard would have been better; however, we had our window seats. With Irish coffee in hand, we delighted in sailing past frolicking sea lions and mountain goats on the way to the glaciers at the head of the bay.

Yes, the day was cold, foggy, and drizzling. Everyone feared that we wouldn’t be able to see the glaciers. True to the park ranger’s word, we shouldn’t have worried. Still, we missed a lot of the supposedly spectacular scenery, making me want to return in future later in the season.

Lamplugh Glacier
The blue of the Lamplugh Glacier

I consider cruising Glacier Bay one of the highlights of our trip, equaled only by seeing the pod of orca whales. Even if it’s raining, you have to go outside to get a feel for the bay and to hear the thunder of calving glaciers.

Ketchikan

All the literature and cruise excursion materials warned us that we would experience rain in Ketchikan no matter when we visited, since the town measures its annual rain in feet, not inches. Remarkably, the day dawned with brilliantly sunny skies and temperatures that climbed to the low 60s.

Marina at Ketchikan
Marina at Ketchikan

We chose the “Rainforest Adventure” excursion that took us by Kodiak boat to an uninhabited island with towering trees and a moss-covered forest floor. Our guide gave us a knowledgeable 1-mile tour of the flora around us. We saw starfish on the island’s rocky shore and a few bald eagles perched on other islands.

Ketchikan was the only town we wished we had had time to explore beyond our excursion. When we had booked, we were supposed to return to town at 12:30 pm. Knowing that we weren’t scheduled to sail until 2:30 pm and that all-aboard times are generally 1 hour before sailing, we figured we’d have an hour. Nope. We were told upon arrival that all-aboard time was 12:45 pm, exactly when we arrived back (late) at the dock. The crew was so disorganized at this port that we had to stand in line for at least 30 minutes to board.

And, Last, the Food Aboard the Joy

Service was shaky throughout the cruise, even in some of the specialty dining restaurants, which we had always loved. In Cagney’s, when we asked for a wines by the glass list, our server said that she didn’t have one. Say what? Other servers, especially in the complimentary dining rooms, seemed perpetually in the weeds. Either that, or the kitchen wasn’t yet up to the task of serving 3000+ people.

Complimentary Dining

We visit the Garden Buffet only if we have to due to time constraints because, well, we aren’t buffet people. Others eat there exclusively because of the variety of selections. If nothing else, the buffet is worth visiting for the macarons, cookies, and ice cream.

Short ribs and pappardelle
Short ribs and pappardelle, at Savor.

We ate most of our breakfasts and lunches at the complimentary Savor or Taste. Although I prefer the chairs in Savor, the two dining rooms are virtually indistinguishable since they serve the same menus. The two dinners that we ate there were good, even if the service was spotty.

Premium Dining Options

Dover sole
Dover sole in Le Bistro

Le Bisto, NCL’s French restaurant, was the best dining experience we had, with excellent service, appetizers, entrées, and desserts. The Dover sole was deliciously delicate and pan-fried to a perfect brown without being overcooked. My husband’s filet of beef was better than what he got in Cagney’s. Profiteroles for dessert were out of this world.

Profiteroles at Le Bistro
Profiteroles, in Le Bistro

Ocean Blue, one of the à la carte restaurant that carries an upcharge even for dining packages, likewise had excellent service, although our surf-and-turf entrées weren’t as good as we had hoped. Our other courses were outstanding. The hamachi ceviche perfectly balanced the bite of lime with the heat of jalapeño. The appetizer may have been the culinary highlight of my trip, even if the meal as a whole didn’t measure up to that at Le Bistro.

Hamachi ceviche at Ocean Blue
Hamachi ceviche, at Ocean Blue

My major disappointment was Cagney’s, the cruise line’s signature steak house. We ate there twice. The first time, my rib-eye steak was decent, not great. The second time I ordered a New York strip for a better experience. My husband had no issues with his filets. Really, though, the best part of the meal was the tuna tartare appetizer. Maybe it’s just that we’ve experienced much better steakhouses.

Tuna Tartare at Cagney's
Tuna tartare, at Cagney’s

The Verdict is In

I would return for an Alaskan cruise on the Norwegian Joy in a heartbeat. The NCL Bliss is supposedly almost identical, so I’d book that in place of the Joy. The ship is amazing, and the food is good. Excursions tend to be more expensive than in the Caribbean. Based on how late we arrived back at the ship every day, I wouldn’t book a private tour company for less. Norwegian holds the sailing for its own excursions, not for others.

— Debbie Lee Wesselmann

Wellington New Zealand

Te Papa Tongarewa museum, Wellington New Zealand
On the pier near Te Papa Tongarewa, the premier Maori museum of New Zealand.

My husband and I traveled to Wellington New Zealand for spring break, which was, of course, the country’s early fall. We arrived exhausted but ready to explore.

Most Memorable: Eating oysters and drinking champagne on the waterfront

Best Food: Logan Brown

Most Surprising: The intimate feel of the capitol city

Most Disappointing: I wanted to stay one more day.

Although the seat of the government was originally located in Auckland, South Islanders complained about the distance. In 1865 it was moved to Wellington, located at the tip of North Island and the geographic center of the country. The Wellington Harbour, as seen above, is a bustling shipping and boating hub with restaurants and “sheds” lining the waterfront.

Continue reading “Wellington New Zealand”
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