Visiting Bryan/College Station: Trendy with a Texas Twang

Photo Bryan Coll Sta

I’m feeling a bit confused today. I’m still not sure how I went from wishing for a place the four of us (Mr. Wiz*, Big A*, JC*and I) could go over the July 4th holiday that was not in the $500 – $700 per night price range and landing at The Stella Hotel, a five star, Preferred Hotel with Frette sheets for a little over $100 a night. I think it was a combination of my positive thinking and JC’s suggestion that we take the lead from a recent Austin Monthly article and visit Bryan/College Station.

The home of Texas A&M University, over 66,000 students swell the city’s population during the school year. We wondered why these two neighboring cities were all of a sudden exploding with all types of development; why now? Apparently, social media had opened the doors to all of the campus sporting events and the general public accepted its invitation. Lucky for us, we were visiting off-season.

The Stella Hotel just opened in April and still smells new. The décor has that wow factor. The mixed use of materials, the textures and the interesting touches (saddle bags and iron I-beams mounted on the walls) all send out a sophisticated, yet edgy vibe. We were greeted by the sports jacket and jean clad staff who all had names like Parker and Morgan (no need to apply here if your name is Joe or Sue), who worked from their iPads, rather than standing behind the usual counter; very cool.

Outside was a man-made lake, two swimming pools, a golf course and a series of paths that led to a residential development of mega homes. The sprawling lawn was so welcoming, set up with assorted games, a fire pit, chairs and tables. Complimentary bicycles and paddle boards awaited our use at the front entrance.

JC acted as the official judge, as we filled our afternoons with pool races and seeing who could do the best hand stand in the water (some things never change). In preparation for the Scrabble championship (with a money prize to make it more interesting) and paddle board competition that I had planned, I tried to psych out Big A by boasting that I had trained on a paddle board while reading a dictionary. It didn’t work; he was the big winner of both contests.

In between, we visited the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and the Messina Hof Winery. Though the Campfire Restaurant at the hotel was in the running, we all agreed that our favorite dinner was at Christopher’s World Grille. The renovated historic home was rated one of the top 100 romantic restaurants in the U. S. by Trip Advisor. As the fans and misters kept us cool, we listened to live music on the porch of the Hullabaloo Diner, a transplanted 1940’s New York diner, as we waited for our table and agreed that this was what Sundays were made for.

I’m not sure what Texas’ secret is; it could be the warm weather or everyone’s laid back style, but it has a way of reminding you to slow down. It gave our little family the chance to enjoy each other’s company and regroup.  We all left feeling relaxed and pampered. I felt a bit more hip and happy to have another family adventure to tuck into my memory belt.

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.


Helping to Keep Austin Weird  

Photo Weird.jpg

I’m too excited to sleep. I blame you for this, Austin; you overstimulate me. You work hard to maintain your city’s official slogan “Keep Austin Weird” by tantalizing me with the bizarre, the off-beat, and you keep peaking my curiosity. And now that you have recently been named the best place to live in America by U.S. News and World Report, there will be no stopping you.

As I reflect on my first year of living here, it’s been a great ride, made up of interesting experiences that I am not sure could or would have happened anywhere else:

Central Market
On arrival, we need to get our bearings and Mr. Wiz* has a plan. Having visited a Central Market in Houston (shop at this gourmet marketplace on steroids, then dance to live music at night), he logically reasons that locating the Austin store will lead us to a great neighborhood, so he’ll ask at their information desk. Pointing out that the staff may be more prepared to locate a product by aisle than to relocate us, I decide to wait in the car. A few minutes later, I am surprised to see a woman in a cowboy hat and boots walk out of the store with Mr. Wiz and shake his hand. He had seen her on line at the information desk and perused her shopping cart. Noticing an excellent wine selection, he decided to ask her where we should live. He was not surprised at all that she enthusiastically lauded her neighborhood and pointed him in the direction of a new building. We signed a lease there 2 days later.

Pints and Poses
The Hyatt Hotel and I have accomplished the impossible; we got Mr. Wiz* to attend a monthly yoga class. Studies have proven that if you offer a guy a free beer, he will happily execute a downward dog pose, no questions asked. In the spirit of community (turns out that yoga and beer are great conversation starters), the hotel offers complimentary parking, a yoga class and a glass of craft beer.

Chicken S**t Bingo
The unassuming Little Longhorn Saloon is a tiny place that looks more like a church with a steeple than a bar. The band is loud, the beer is cold and the place is packed, both inside and out. It’s a Sunday afternoon and my family is still shocked that this was my birthday destination of choice. I explain to them that this is a famous venue and we’re going to be experiencing a bit of the original Austin. While we visit the chickens and chat with Ginny, “the chicken whisperer”, we learn that the afternoon will include “chickens, chicken feed and what happens after chickens eat.” The $2 ticket has a number on it and will get you one chance on the giant plywood bingo table. I’m sure that these chickens have their SAG cards; they are real professionals. They strut around the table, working the room into a cheering frenzy. As luck would have it, the chicken leaves her “mark” on my number and I am the winner of $115 in cash!

Keep Austin Weird Festival
We had so much fun last year volunteering to assist with the 5K check in, that we decide to do it again. Known as the “Slowest 5K Race on the Planet”, everyone is welcome to participate and a bizarre costume will win you a prize. Young, old, babies in strollers and dogs all strut their stuff and stop along the way at different stations for beverages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), ice cream and activities. At the festival, I cheered on aardvarks as they raced and chatted with a woman in a mermaid costume, who explained the story of her tattoos to me.

Weird Homes Tour
I am very excited for tour day to come and even more so now, since I am the winner of 2 VIP tickets that include the tour and the after party. By the end of the day, we will have driven 90 miles all over Austin, investigating homes that range from a bucolic wonderland in a nature preserve, with quotes from Emily Dickinson poems written over the doorways and pastoral views out every French door to a series of domes lovingly pieced together into an artist’s retreat, rumored to have special healing powers to a traditional home on the outside and a Feng Shui inspired home on the inside with a red velvet lounge room and a royal blue cosmic room featuring a 100” flat screen TV (most guys did not get past this point and just stood, gaping at the TV).

The owners of the next group of homes, self-confessed pack rats, delighted in the fact that they were living in a never to be completed work of art. Whether it was a police car hood with working sirens on the ceiling, doll heads under glass, a wall of salt and pepper shakers, a lamp made from a 1950’s salon hair dryer or a hollowed-out armadillo containing guest washcloths, each treasure had a story. Chatting with the enthusiastic homeowners, who were so warm and welcoming, I left the day wondering if there was any room in my perfectionist personality for a little eccentricity. Sensing Mr. Wiz’s concern over the souvenirs I collect during the day, I ease his worries and announce that I am not adopting hoarding tendencies any time soon.

We arrive at Indra’s Awarehouse for the after party. It’s a large metal roofed warehouse, filled to the brim with the owner’s art and collections of oddities. The surreal setting is right out of a Fellini film: a barefooted band plays on a carpeted stage; as if on cue, a dog drops a deflated ball at the feet of guests, prompting them to throw it on to the stage for him to chase; scantily dressed acro-yoginis glide up yards of silk fabric and perform above our heads. A cocktail seems in order, even though the professionally dressed bar staff looks out of place. We laughingly imagine that this is probably just another day for the owner; waking up to coffee in the morning and greeting some hangers-on at the bar (with bar staff still in uniform) and waving to the overhead performers that continue all day long. Hungry, we peruse the snacks. While, protein is always welcome, tonight it is in the form of bags of flavored crickets and mealy worms. We grab some regular popcorn and eagerly await some daring guests to taste them and offer a critique. We learn from the more adventurous that anything crunchy with a BBQ flavor is edible after some of Austin’s handmade Tito’s Vodka.

Austin, you give me the same feeling that I experienced whenever my grandmother would open her coat and let me snuggle in with her. You opened up your big, warm, wonderful, weird arms to me. Your people are so friendly and so welcoming. Sure, the temperature heats up, but living here makes me feel so cool. You have that big city vibe with the twang of Texas mixed in. You seem to bring out the best in me and I feel like this is where I am supposed to be. I only hope I can continue to do my civic duty and generate the accepted level of weirdness.


*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.


Doing the Big D with Big A  

Photo Big D

Happy Birthday, Big A*!

One month after his 28th birthday, our Bon Vivant was finally going to be at home for a weekend, so we (Mr. Wiz*, JC* and I) head to Dallas to celebrate. We take our festivities seriously; after much research and many emails and texts, we come up with our food-centric itinerary. Here are some of the weekend’s highlights:


The driving rain on our arrival does not deter us and we opt for a visit to the Dallas Museum of Art. We’re already impressed that the general admission is free, but then Jack, the elderly greeter at the entrance, quickly sizes us up, suggests we go see the Coco Chanel exhibit and we are transfixed. Five rooms from Coco Chanel’s Monaco home, Villa Pausa, have been painstakingly recreated in the museum. Once she married the Duke of Westminster, this was to be their home. When plans changed, she kept the house, but always felt a twinge of sadness for what could have been. When she finally did sell it, the home was reborn when Dallas art collectors, Emery and Wendy Reves renovated it and hosted their most famous guest, Winston Churchill, who adopted it as his second home. Investigating all the nooks and crannies and reading all the personal letters and detailed descriptions of their lives there made for a lovely afternoon.

Big A’s furniture looks great in his new apartment. I particularly like his bedroom barn door. He surprises us with hors d’ oeuvres and serves us our favorite wine. A few toasts later, we’re off to Stampede 66 for dinner. We enjoy the braised beef short ribs and honey fried chicken as we peruse the décor, a mix of Texas whimsy and sophistication. Metal horse sculptures surround the TV monitors that feature a rodeo. I’m fascinated by a wall of wooden plaques with the names of Texas towns such as Looneyville and Dicey.


It takes a lot to get Big A up and out early on a Saturday, so we are all in when he suggests we meet at 10:15am to stand in line for lunch at the Pecan Lodge. When lines started to form at their farmer’s market stall, the young business couple turned caterers knew they had an award-winning barbeque recipe and opened a restaurant. We eat a little of almost everything on the menu and agree the collard greens are the best we’ve ever had. Fortified, we walk around Deep Ellum, the revitalized warehouse district now full of shops, bars, restaurants and music venues.

With Big A as our guide, we get a tour of Dallas. Most people still remember where they were when President Kennedy was shot and the big X on the street, marking the spot brings back a flood of memories. We play classical music on the radio as we drive through the Turtle Creek and Highland Park neighborhoods to view the mansions.

Leave it to JC to be the life of the party when she announces that in honor of Big A’s birthday, we will be having cocktails at the Petroleum Club, a private club on the 39th floor of Chase Tower. How did she make this happen? It all started the month prior, when she danced with a spry, 90 year-old retired doctor who mentioned the Austin Club, a private social club housed in a historic building in downtown Austin. Before you could say “sign-me-up”, JC had researched the club, texted me to see if Mr. Wiz and I were available for a complimentary lunch and a tour of the facility (we were!) and then proceeded to join. Now, as a member, she receives reciprocal privileges at dozens of clubs across the country.

The evening continued with dinner at St. Martin Wine Bistro, named one of the top 10 most romantic restaurants by Trip Advisor. We dined on grilled rack of lamb under a twinkling chandelier as we listened to the live piano music and toasted to a great day.


According to D Magazine, we are brunching at one of the best spots in Dallas. Boulevardier is a French bistro, simple in décor but complex in flavors. I still dream about the 2 dishes that JC and I shared: the Prospector’s Breakfast (crispy oysters and arugula atop an open face omelette made with house-made bacon) and the Legs and Eggs (a crispy duck leg with sunny-side-up eggs served on stone ground grit cakes with huckleberry preserves). Not wanting to miss anything in this eclectic neighborhood, we head out for a walk in the historic Bishop Arts District. The store displays are so incredible, we’re not surprised when signs ask that no photos be taken.

There is work to be done, so we head back to Big A’s. Mr. Wiz helps Big A hang some pictures, while JC and I head to the pool to relax. The boys find us one hour later, sound asleep in the shade. It’s Big A’s first time at the pool and I sense a look of panic on his face when I tell him that I’d be happy to introduce him to all of his neighbors that I’ve met (Millennials, no sense of humor!).

We head out on foot to explore Big A’s neighborhood, Knox-Henderson. The area is bustling; every restaurant, bar and shop is busy! Not sure if JC will want to climb all the stairs to a rooftop bar, I discreetly ask the waiter is there is an elevator (there isn’t). It’s then that I notice JC, who has already sprinted up the staircase, yelling down to ask me if I am all right. Big A is determined to have me taste a drink he thinks that I will love and by the end of the day, Deep Eddy Red Grapefruit Vodka (made in Austin), club soda and lime is my new fav.

Our dinner reservation is at a neighborhood restaurant, right down the block. Gemma has received rave reviews for the husband and wife team’s concept of sophisticated dining in a relaxed atmosphere. The blue and white décor combined with the professional wait staff’s control over the dining room create a tranquil setting. We liked the braised rabbit pappardelle and the chicken porchetta the best and were glad we shared 3 entrees (our secret for not overeating).

We say goodbye to Big A and head out of Dallas the next morning, determined to eat only lettuce leaves and ramp up our workouts for the next couple of days. We know we’ll be hungry for another visit soon. There are still lots of restaurants and sights we missed this time around and we want to check them off our list before Big A moves again.

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.


I Danced with a Man with No Legs (and Other Inexplicable Moments)

Photo Inexplicable 2

Coincidences? I like to think that things happen for a reason and if you take the time to analyze each situation, you will come up with its rationale. What I first thought were rather strange occurrences were really just wonderful experiences in disguise:

When I read about the dance in the church bulletin, something told me to get out of my comfort zone and go alone. My first husband and I had just separated and I was feeling sad and lonely. A young man with a great smile asked me to dance a couple of times and then we sat and chatted. I complimented him on his dancing skills and he said “…Not bad for a man with no legs…”. He then went on to tell me that he had lost both legs in a motorcycle accident and had been fitted for prostheses. He opened up about how he was determined to not let that accident change his life. I listened in awe, embarrassed by the drama I had created in my mind over what now seemed like minor issues that I was facing. I never saw him again, but after that evening I resolved to get back to positive thinking and get on with my life.

Before I deleted my Facebook profile, I decided to look up one of Big A’s* pre-school classmates that had suddenly popped into my mind; I’m not sure why. I just wanted to glance at her home page, which is visible to all, without having to “friend” her. I was so happy to see that she had recently gotten engaged. The next morning, the hair on my arms stood straight up when I saw an email from her asking for our new address so she could send us a wedding invitation.

My Dad had just passed away and I had put his business card in a frame at my bedside. A great marketer, he had created the persona of the “Gentleman Roofer”. I loved seeing the picture of him in a bowler hat, smiling back at me from the card each day. I awoke one morning and was amazed to see the metal frame of the picture sparkling! Though the technical reason was the combination of the sun hitting the frame just right and the movement of the ceiling fan, I like to think that it was my Dad letting me know that he was okay.

It was my Dad’s birthday. I kissed the little frame at my bedside and asked him to give me a sign that he was all right. As I walked to work, I was startled to see a can lying in the street near the curb, across from the convenience store. I rolled it over with my foot and gasped. It was a can of Progresso Wedding Soup, my Dad’s favorite. I picked up the can, carried it lovingly to work and enjoyed it slowly for lunch, thinking of the times we would cook together, even making our version of that same soup.

Be open, be attentive and look for signs all around you.  Slow down enough to let the little surprises in life astonish you and enjoy the inexplicable moments.

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.



Lisbon, Portugal: Oct. 25-29, 2016  


Photo Sintra 2

We surprise Mr. Wiz* and serenade him with a rendition of “Happy Birthday” in Spanish on the train to Lisbon. Known as one of the oldest cities in the world, Lisbon is the hilly, coastal, capital city of Portugal. It’s hard to believe that an earthquake and Tsunami devastated it in 1755 and it had to be built anew.

After much research, Big A* and I settled on the H10 Duque de Loule Hotel. It is a little gem; an elegant boutique hotel in a historic building. The rooms are mostly white, with hints of the famous blue and white Portuguese tiles. The cozy lobby has wonderful window seats and interesting coffee table books to peruse, but the best spot in the house is the rooftop bar with a beautiful city view, our new meeting spot every night before dinner. We are offered a sparkling wine by the sparkling staff as we check in and waste no time heading out again.

This is a great walking city and we are in for more inclines and descents. We tour the gardens in the lovely Parque Eduardo VII and visit the trendy Rossio Square and the riverfront Palace Square. We take a stroll on the beach and watch the surfers. We people watch as we eat lunch at a seaside restaurant on the docks of Santo Amara. We visit Vasco da Gama’s tomb at the 16th century Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. We take the guidebook’s word that the largest collection of baroque tiles on record is at the majestic Mosteiro de São Vincente de Fora Church. We save some steps and ride the funicular up the very steep route and enjoy the views of the Tagus River. At night, we listen to the hypnotic verses of the famous Fado music.

When JC* warns us to watch for the gypsies, I am even more excited to finally see the Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest district. It’s a maze of medieval and Moorish alleys with little hidden nooks and crannies. We sit on the ledge at the 16th century Castelo da San Jorge (St. George’s Castle) and admire the breathtaking view. Armed with his New York Times 36-hour guide, Big A is determined to find a rooftop bar that he has read about it. I can’t help but laugh when he leads us to a parking garage elevator. We exit at the top floor and head to a door. We open it and wow! It’s a stunning oasis with comfortable seating, great music and amazing views of the city. We toast to feeling very cool that we found this “private club”.

We take a Viator day trip to visit the towns of Sintra and Cascais. There are only 7 of us in the van, including an English woman travelling alone who is the Nanny to the Saudi Arabian Royal Family (a fascinating conversation follows). Our tour guide, Joaquin, is very chatty and not only shares his knowledge of the sights, but interesting information about the Portuguese economy and lifestyle.

Sintra boasts not one, but two castles that were both royal residences; very different in style, but each fascinating. The National Palace of Queluz, built in the 18th century, exudes the elegance and grandeur you would expect, with its impressive rooms and formal gardens. But, it is the Palace of Pena, built in the 19th century, that has the “Wow” factor. Set on top of a mountain in the middle of a forest, this flamboyant fairytale chateau displays its medieval and Islamic architecture proudly in bright colors.

After a stroll through Sintra’s charming hilltop town and a yummy lunch of petiscos (the Portuguese cousin of Spanish tapas), we head for Cascais, the Portugese version of New Yorks’s Hamptons. After a walk around this affluent coastal town, we are eager to sneak a peak at the lavish hotel featuring a room with the glass bottom floor, where you can watch the waves from your bed (like Brad and Angelina did when they stayed there), but Joaquin has other plans for us. It’s time for one last walk on the beach before we fall asleep in the van to the sound of Joaquin’s voice, regaling us with the continuation of his life story.

When I notice that I only have one set of vitamins left, I realize that it must be almost time to head home to…. Texas (we only moved there in April, so forgive me if it takes me a minute to remember where home is now). At the airport, we joke about which other flight we’d rather hop on, but after 46 days, it’s time to get back and see what trouble we can get into in Austin.


Pictured: Palace of Pena entrance.

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.






Porto, Portugal: Oct. 22-25, 2016


Photo Porto 2

The Pilgrims do not seem to want to go home. Most are leaving Santiago and heading out in all directions. We are going to Porto by bus to meet up with JC* and Big A* and are anxious for our reunion.

Porto is one the oldest cities in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s location on the Douro River and it’s hilly streets (more inclines and descents!) make it an interesting city to explore.

We travel well together. Big A and I are armed with all the research we’ve done. I especially like the New York Times 36 hour city guide that Big A has provided. Oh, and he surprises us by being able to speak some Portuguese (he already speaks Spanish and said it was easy with the free Duo Lingo app.). Mr. Wiz* is in charge of getting us where we want to go and JC provides the spunk and enthusiasm (she is first one up and ready each day).

You can always count on the NH Hotels for a trendy vibe and the NH Collection Porto Batalha delivers. I particularly like the ancient stone arches that grace the modern lobby and the old postage stamp theme in the elevators and on the carpeting. On arrival, we are given coupons for a port wine tasting in the bar. This will be the start of a wonderful relationship between us, the bar and the port, every night after dinner.

Those inclines and descents really help us work up an appetite and we foodies can’t decide what we like the best: bacalhau (salted codfish), grilled pulpo (octopus), cabrito (baby kid), suckling pig or Portuguese sausages. One of the more interesting meals was lunch at Pastel De Bacalhau. There was only one item on the menu: a large, egg shaped codfish fritter stuffed with cheese served in a plastic holder inset into what looked like an artist’s palette with room for your glass of white port and your thumb, so you could carry it all with one hand.

We stroll the narrow cobblestone streets of the Ribeira District, the old quarter on the Duoro riverbanks, the beautiful gardens at the Palacio de Cristal and the Avenida dos Aliado, a lively avenue. We visit the Livaria Lello & Irmao Library, named the most beautiful bookstore in the world and rumored to be the inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. At the Do Porto Cathedral, we delight in the story that a local resident painted the altar to hide its silver, so that when Napoleon and his troops entered the city to pillage it, they left it behind never realizing it was there.

The days fly by and before we know it, it’s time to head to Lisbon by train.

Pictured: view from the Duoro riverbank

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.