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I first heard of Loire Valley a year and a half ago from a classmate who had studied abroad and visited.  As soon as he said it was a beautiful region full of chateaus, I was sold.  Aside from just seeing the chateaus, another thing I had really wanted to try at least once in my life was a multi-day bike tour.  So a few internet searches later, I found myself booking a 2 day self guided bike tour through Loire Valley with Detours de Loire.  While I really wanted to book the 4 day tour since it would allow us to bike to the major chateaus, I’m really glad that the hubs insisted on the shorter tour.  My butt totally did not want to get back on that bike the second day so I can imagine how painful it would have been on the 3rd and 4th day!

As a compromise, I ended up booking a full day Loire Valley Castle minibus tour to make sure we got to visit all the major chateaus that I’ve read so much about.  It was the best decision ever since it was a small group of just 8 people, we got to spend approximately 1-1.5 hours on our own at each chateau, and our driver was extremely nice and informative.  We then went on our 2 day bike tour and got to visit the smaller and in my opinion, more charming chateaus completely on our own time and with the added benefit of very little crowds (partly due to the scattered showers).

For those of you contemplating visiting Loire Valley, here’s our itinerary to help you plan out your visit.

Day 1 – Arrive in Tours by train from Paris.  Tours was a great base for exploring Loire Valley.  It’s one of the larger cities in Loire Valley so there’s plenty of restaurants, unique shops, and charming architecture to keep you occupied for a day or two.  **Tip: stay in a hotel close to the train station** We stayed at Hotel De L’Europe which was right across from the train station, 1 block from the tourist office where all the tours depart from, and 2 blocks from the Detours de Loire bike shop.  It’s small and bare bones but economical and most importantly convenient.

Day 2 – Full day castle sightseeing.  Visited Chateau de Chenonceau, Chateau de Chambord, Chateau de Cheverny, and had a choice of either Chateau d’Amboise or the Clos Luce gardens, with lunch in Amboise.

Day 3 – Start of bike tour in Tours.  Visited Chateau de Villandry and then biked to Azay-le-Rideau for overnight stay.  The hotel that Detours de Loire booked us in was a 2* hotel, although seemed more like a boutique hotel, and it was absolutely charming!  Azay-le-Rideau is a very small village but oozes countryside charm.  I highly recommend staying at Hotel de Biencourt and having dinner at Cote Cour which was just a few storefronts away from the hotel.  The restaurant had a daily menu based on seasonal ingredients and the staff was extremely friendly and attentive.

Day 4 – Visit Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau.  Bike to Chateau d’Usse and end bike tour in Chinon.  **Tip: Make sure to spend a few hours in Chinon, a beautifully preserved medieval village**

Okay, so now to the good stuff!  Loire Valley is chock full of chateaus and it can be difficult to narrow down so I’ll post pictures of each chateau and my general thoughts on each one.

Chateau de Chenonceau, aka ‘the ladies chateau’ due to the women who’ve influenced the architecture and surrounding gardens.  It has an interesting history of first being bequeathed by King Henri II to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers and then forcibly taken away from her by his widow Catherine de Medici.  As such there are two gardens on the grounds, named for each of the ladies, beautifully maintained and offers great views of the enchanting castle.  This castle is one of the most famous in Loire Valley and is certainly one of the prettiest.  The interior is also well maintained and offers a glimpse of 16th century life.  I particularly enjoyed viewing the kitchen.

Clos Luce is most famous for being the residence where Leonardo da Vinci stayed for the last few years of his life.  Not so much a chateau as it is a mansion, the main draw is really the garden full of da Vinci’s inventions.  The basement showcases miniature models  of da Vinci’s various mechanical machines, which are then reproduced full scale in the gardens.  The hubs and I really enjoyed seeing how each machine worked and some of them were even interactive.  It was also full of families as the kids really loved running around to all of the structures.  It really brought out the inner nerd and inner kid in all of us!

 Chateau de Chambord is probably the most recognized chateau in Loire Valley and certainly the grandest of them all.  The size of the chateau was just absolutely immense.  We had about an hour to tour it and I don’t even think we went to every room.  Not that we really wanted to since the inside was quite bare.  Apparently the chateau was used mainly as a hunting lodge when the King would travel through in the summer.  As such, the interiors were decorated minimally since the King’s party would travel with all the furnishings.  Nonetheless, the exterior really is quite magnificent and impressive so no trip to Loire Valley would be complete without visiting this chateau.

 Chateau de Cheverny is a stately home owned and still inhabited by a Marquis and his family.  Although much smaller than the other chateaus, this elegant home is warmer, meticulously decorated, and just feels like the home of a wealthy family.  Since the family still lives there, the entire staff, from the grounds keeper to the tour guides, have been interviewed by the Marquis.  Another interesting and fun fact, the creator of “The Adventures of Tintin” used this chateau as a model for the chateau in the series.  One of the outhouses even has a gallery of Tintin artwork.  The family also breeds hounds used for hunting so the grounds has a kennel of over 100 hounds!

Sadly here is where I lost all my pictures so the following pictures have been taken from the internet.  Sources below pictures.

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Chateau and gardens of Villandry is most known for the gardens.  The gardens really are vast and magnificent.  There’s multiple sections of meticulously groomed flower and vegetable gardens, a water garden, a sun garden, and even a children’s maze.  You can spend a good hour just walking and admiring the beautiful gardens and the view from the chateau overlooking the garden is just breathtaking.

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Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau was also unexpected for me.  I did not have this on my “must-see” list so I was really pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed visiting this fairytale-like castle.  It’s one of the smaller chateaus but it’s one of the more enchanting ones being situated on the water amidst a dreamy wooded area.

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Chateau d’Usse is known as the inspiration and model for Sleeping Beauty’s castle.  Unfortunately out of all the chateaus, I liked this the least.  Maybe because it was the last castle we saw and by then we were just castled-out but while the exterior was pretty enough, it was just not impressive compared to the others.  The interior however was the most disappointing.  It was rather cheesy as they used mannequins to depict scenes of daily life and they even depicted scenes from Sleeping Beauty.

While there are many more chateaus in the region, I felt that the full day tour plus the bike tour really gave us a good taste of Loire Valley.  We managed to cover all the major chateaus as well as visit some lesser known ones.  The bike tour also gave us the opportunity to stop by little villages along the Loire River.  While the bike trail was mostly flat, we rode approximately 40 miles per day so you do have to be in fairly good shape in order to enjoy yourself.  Over the 4 days, we also had the opportunity to visit Tours, Amboise, Azay-le-Rideau, and Chinon, all of which are charming in their own way and warrant a brief visit.

Lastly, while I don’t regret booking the bike tour through Detours de Loire (they provided quality bikes, helmets, guide maps and recommendations of sites and restaurants, hotel, and luggage transfers), it is possible to bike on your own for much less since the bike path through Loire Valley is well marked (La Loire a Velo).  The only thing to worry about would be luggage but that can be easily remedied if you backpack lightly.

Up next, Paris!

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Paris, Je t’aime

No phrase sums up our trip more than this one.  Seriously, the hubs and I felt as though we left our hearts in Paris.  We had the most amazing vacation, one that was full of delicious food, romantic walks, and beautiful sights.  It’s been about a month and half since we’ve been back and we’re already hatching a plan to go again (Paris in the winter anyone?)!

There’s so much I want to tell you guys so I’ve decided to do 4 separate posts: Loire Valley, Paris sights, Paris FOOD!, and general tips and advice.  Also, the one sad part of our trip, besides the day we left of course, is that I only have 1/3 of the pictures I took.  Unfortunately our memory card became corrupted towards the end of our trip so most of my posts will have a combination of my own photos and images I find on the web.

a bientot!

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The hubs and I celebrated our 3-day President’s Day weekend with a getaway trip to Mendocino.  I’ve been wanting to check out this northern coastal town for a while now and I’m so glad we went.  Mendocino is like stepping back in time, the pace is a little slower, the people are friendlier, and the landscape is amazingly raw and beautiful.

First off, Mendocino is 3.5 hours north of San Francisco.  On the way up though, we made a slight detour to Tomales Bay for oysters, which I highly recommend to anyone heading up.  They were oh so delicious and so worth it despite having to eat outside in the freezing cold because of our dog.  I’ll blog about the oysters and surrounding Point Reyes area in another post though 🙂

We stayed in Fort Bragg, a bigger city just 10 miles north of Mendocino.  It’s not as quaint as Mendocino but offers great coastal trails, cheaper lodging options, and a less touristy feel.  Although I would’ve loved to stay at one of the B&B’s, we opted for a more economical option since we were also bringing along our goldie.  At $60 per night and a $10 pet fee, Super 8 Motel was just what needed, simple and clean accommodations at a good price.

Just 5 minutes from the Super 8 is North Harbor, where there are numerous seafood restaurants:

And across from the Super 8 Motel, there’s a trail right by the Cliff House where you can walk you dog and take in the fresh ocean air.

We went to Cafe Beaujolais for an early dinner since we didn’t make reservations.  Cafe Beaujolais is an intimate French restaurant that focuses on local, seasonal ingredients.  Everything about our meal was amazing.  For appetizers we had the soup of the day, which was a creamy tomato bisque and the local Dungeness crab cakes.  Entrees were the Niman Ranch steak and the Kurobuta pork chop.  And for dessert we shared the flourless Callebaut chocolate lava cake, which was a mistake since I wanted it all to myself!  The restaurant is a must for anyone visiting Mendocino and I highly recommend you make reservations, unless you are willing to eat dinner at 5:30pm like we did.

We started our second day with brunch at Eggheads and coffee from Headland’s Coffeehouse.  Eggheads is your typical no frills neighborhood breakfast joint.  They’re known for their kitschy Wizard of Oz decor and their large variety of omelets.  The hubs had the house special Dungeness crab omelette and I had the garlic special omelette.  I’m pleased to say Eggheads was quite generous with both the crab and the garlic! The food is not going to blow you out of the water but it is a good hearty breakfast.  There is often a wait for the restaurant but they give you a call on your cell phone so you can wander around town while you wait, which we did.  We grabbed coffee at Headlands, which offers a dozen different coffee flavors (pic below) and walked around downtown Fort Bragg which looked like it had been frozen in time.  There are tons of unique stores to keep you occupied for at least an hour and also a good number of art galleries.  We particularly enjoyed the photo gallery just down the street from Eggheads.

After brunch, we picked up Hansel from the hotel and headed to Glass Beach.  The beach is known for the abundance of sea glass from the dumping of garbage many many years ago (back in the early 1900’s).  Overtime the beach was cleaned up and the ocean water eventually wore down the glass from discarded bottles into smooth colorful glass pieces.  Nowadays tourists go to the beach and pick up the glass pieces as souvenirs even though you’re not supposed to.  We didn’t go down to the beach but stayed on the coastal trail walking north.  The trail follows the curves of the cliffs and eventually turns into MacKerricher State Park.

MacKerricher State Park eventually leads to a dog friendly beach.  Hansel definitely enjoyed his time here!  The beach was so pristine and there was only a handful of other people around, I can imagine that it would be so nice on a warm summer day.

After we sufficiently tired Hansel out, we brought him back to the hotel and headed into Mendocino to walk around town.  We grabbed a snack at Frankie’s, which serves pizza and locally made Cowlick’s ice-cream.  They have interesting ice-cream flavors like mushroom, ginger, and egg nog.  And if you eat in, you can amuse yourself with their “questions people ask”!  With questions like “is the mint chip minty?” and “what kind of bread does the ice cream sandwich come with?” it makes you wonder if people really did ask those questions!

Mendocino is definitely a charming little town full of little boutiques and art galleries.  Stop by one of their many fudge shops for a snack.  And for a real hidden gem, stop by the Garden Bakery for their pastries, in particular the apple turnover, which was so yummy and not too sweet.  It’s tucked away in a little alley with a small garden seating area.

We ended our night and our stay with dinner and beer tasting at the North Coast Brewing Co.  The food is nothing to rave about and if you must order food, stick to the fish and chips.  They’re known for their craft beers and their tasting was worth it, $15 for 12 different 4 oz beers.  It was certainly a good end to a relaxing trip!

We took it easy in Mendocino but one can easily fill an entire weekend with activities there.  The Botanical garden is highly recommended and dog friendly.  There’s numerous hiking trails, whale watching trips, and wineries in nearby Anderson Valley too.  The best part about it for me was that it was so dog friendly there.  Most of the hotels and B&B’s allow pets and with the abundance of trails, we were able to keep our dog happy as well.

Here are the details of all the places we visited, which are all recommended:

Cafe Beaujolais – 961 Ukiah St, Mendocino

Frankies – 44951 Ukiah St, Mendocino

Garden Bakery – 10450 Lansing St, Mendocino

Eggheads – 326 North Main St, Fort Bragg

Headlands Coffeehouse – 120 East Laurel St, Fort Bragg

North Coast Brewing Co – 455 North Main St, Fort Bragg

Glass Beach – 320 East Oak St, Fort Bragg

MacKerricher State Park – 24100 MacKerricher Park Rd, Fort Bragg

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May can’t come soon enough.  Hubs and I just booked our flight to France and I’m so excited, I just can’t hide it! (Saved by the Bell anyone???)  Although we’ve been to Paris before, it was only for a long weekend and we were new college grads with little funds so this time we are doing it right!  There’s going to be shopping, lots of walking and exploring off the beaten path neighborhoods, and of course TONS of eating.  From wine and cheese picnics in the park to Michelin starred restaurants, from fresh out of the oven croissants to ham sandwiches, from macarons to rotisserie chicken, we want to try it all!  We’ll have 10 days there but we want to explore other parts of France too so here’s where the real work begins.  The more I research, the more places I want to see, but we only have about 5 days to explore since we want to spend about 4-5 days enjoying Paris.  I’m totally going to sound like an ignorant American but boy did I not realize how many unique cities there are in France.  Here are a few places I’m considering.

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I’ve seen numerous photos of Mont Saint Michel and would love to actually see this beautiful island in person.  It’s a well preserved medieval town and I can imagine wandering the winding alleyways.  It’s about a 4.5 hour drive from Paris though, and although beautiful, I don’t think we would spend more than a day there.  An alternative would be to spend a night or two in Rennes, Brittany and try their famous crepes, seafood, and galettes, and then head to Mont Saint Michel for a day trip.

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Loire Valley is on my bucket list of places to visit in the near future, full of enchanting chateaus and gardens.  I’d love to bike through the region, taking in the beautiful vistas.  We’d tour numerous chateaus, go wine-tasting, and try the delicious cuisine.  It’s only about an hour away from Paris by train so it’s easy to get to and we would ideally stay for 2 nights so we don’t rush our time there.

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Beaune is the wine capital of Burgundy, need I say more?  This city is one of the key wine centers in France and as such has multiple caves offering FREE wine tastings!  It’s also known as a gastronome’s paradise and has a major food market on Saturdays.  The city is  approximately 2.5 hours southeast of Paris so it’s not too far out for a 2 day trip.

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Um, how cute is the architecture??  Colmar is located in Alsace, France and is right on the border of Germany and Switzerland and as such is influenced by those countries.  It’s a beautifully well-preserved city and has unique food that sounds more German than French, like bretzels with melted cheese, sauerkraut with fish, and quiches!

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Reims is the main city of the Champagne region!  It’s only 45 minutes from Paris by train so this would make a great day trip.  While there we would visit the impressive Cathedral where almost all the French kings have been crowned for 1,000 years.  And of course we can’t leave without touring the most famous champagne producers like Veuve Cliquot and Taittinger.

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Giverny, the home of Monet’s garden’s where he was inspired to paint his series of waterlilies and other dreamy landscapes.  Although there’s not much there other than Monet’s home and gardens, it’s only 45 minutes from Paris, totally worth it to see his paintings come to life.

Have you been to any of these places?  Are any of these must see’s?

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So as you all know, I recently went back to NYC/NJ to visit family and friends for the holidays.  While my main purpose was to catch up with everyone, I did manage to visit a few new places and restaurants, yay!  I’ll spend the next few posts talking about places I went to, in addition to some of my favorite city activities, by general area, to give you guys a flavor of the Big Apple.

The hubs and I spent our 4 year anniversary wandering around NYC and one of our stops was to the High Line park.  I visited the park last winter when it was only partially finished so I was excited to see it was nearly completed this time around.  Even in the winter, this park is awesome.  Located in the Meatpacking district, the park has a great urban feel to it.  It’s set amidst old warehouses and new architecturally stunning apartment buildings.  There’s loungers and benches scattered throughout the park and in the warmer months, there’s even movies projected onto the side of a building, making for a great respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.

If you find yourself visiting the High Line, start off at the cool looking Gansvoort Hotel.  There’s tons of restaurants, high end designer stores, and art galleries housed in old warehouses in the area.  For lunch, head to Pastis, the sister restaurant of Balthazar (one of my favorite restaurants), or Del Posto, a michelin starred restaurant with a $29 lunch prix fix!  Or if you just want to snack, go to Chelsea Market.  There’s tons of unique food shops (try the brownies at Fat Witch Bakery, baked goods at Amy’s Bread, or amazing hot chocolate at Jacques Torres) and boutiques, making for a fun afternoon!

If you walk the High Line to the end at 30th Street and 10th Avenue, make your way over to 8th Avenue, head south and you’ll find yourself  in the Chelsea neighborhood, which is a great residential neighborhood full of great restaurants, nightlife, and unique stores.  Make sure to cap off your day with a stop at Billy’s Bakery for dessert.

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