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Cruising to Roatan, Honduras

Sunday, April 1st – Cruise Time

On Sunday, April 1, 2018, I embarked on my first-ever cruise with Norwegian Cruise Lines. My brother Tony, sister-in-law Brittany, and three of Brittany’s friends Kait, Tonia, and Becky had no idea the adventures that awaited us.

A massive stunning cruise ship began to emerge into view as we drove to the drop off point in Miami, FL. Our floating home for the next eight days. Tony, Brittany, Kait and I drove 12 hours through the night from Charlotte, NC. The ship was a welcome sight and we were excited to not be in a car for a week. I felt like I was 9 again and about to arrive at Disneyland in Anaheim. I felt the excitement stir inside me and couldn’t wait to step foot on that ship…

Fifty years ago, Knut Utstein Kloster, third-generation Norwegian shipping executive, decided to take his family’s business to a whole new level when he established the Caribbean Lines, later renamed Norwegian Cruise Lines. Knut was one of the founders of the cruise industry who saw the potential for the industry to go well beyond creating carefree holidays. His dream of creating a floating village of 5,000 passengers on the water continues to be a popular form of vacation for millions each year.

As we got closer to the ship and all its engineering glory, the endless lines that wrapped around as we walked closer had Kait and I half-joking to each other saying things like, “This is happening. Ok are we on the ship yet? Ok we are on the ship. Omg. Are we on yet?”

Inside the ship the swirling patterned carpets and bright pink steps reminded me of Vegas casinos. Our room was toward the front on the fifth level. Once inside our windowless cruise hobbit hole, we lovingly called it; I recognized the same electricity wall fixture that my hotel in Sharjah had last year. I immediately stuck my card in the slot to turn the lights on. What we didn’t learn till later was how to keep it activated to charge our phones when the lights are off. Details. We changed into our bikinis on and headed to the pool.

On the fifteenth-level was the pool, hot tubs, waterslides, miniature golf, rope course, and climbing wall. The second we stepped into the pool area any stress or worries from my life on land dissipated into thin air.

We were departing out of Miami and were not departing for a few hours. Kait and I went straight to the pool bar called Waves to order our first drink then wandered upstairs to check out the views of Miami. Palm trees. Everywhere. Happy place. We coincidentally found my brother and sister-in-law upstairs.

The four of us lounged on the pool chairs to get our first dose of vitamin D until hunger called us back inside the ship. We tried our first restaurant called O’Sheehan’s Irish pub and I ordered the Caesar Salad with the blackened salmon. Back to the pool for a few more hours to soak up the Florida sun. Once the ship set sail the sensation of seeing the calm waves alongside us was nothing less than magical.

“When the sun is shining, I can do anything; no mountain is too high, no trouble too difficult to overcome.” – Wilma Rudolph

Once the sun set we went back to our rooms to get dressed up and met up at Tropicana for dinner. The huge restaurant still managed to make you feel like you were in a high-end restaurant in any city. Tropicana had a diverse menu and we enjoyed sharing our dishes. Tonia and Becky met up with us for dinner. The rest of the night we explored the ship.

Monday, April 2nd – Full Day at Sea

My body clock woke me up at what I thought was 6:48 a.m. only to learn it was two hours earlier. When I am on vacation I don’t sit still. What am I saying? I never sit still! My phone bat was almost dead since we hadn’t learned yet how to keep the wall fixture active when the lights were off. I took my dying phone to O’Sheehan’s to charge. I loved walking around the empty ship while so many were still sleeping. Scanned the multitude of cruise activities and marked everything I wanted to do. Kait met up with me an hour later to have a cup of coffee. I could get used to starting my days looking out a window at the waves.

Our day was spent poolside. For lunch, we sat at our now favorite spot at O’Sheehans upstairs overlooking the main stage below where all the cruise shows and live music took place. I ordered the Shepherd’s Pie that was surprisingly delicious. Then Tony and Brittany took me to their room so I could see their balcony. I was mesmerized watching the waves. Why did it take me this long to go on a cruise!? Later that afternoon I took advantage of the Bourbon and Beer tasting at the Sunset Bar. Norwegian Cruise Lines offers a variety of both free events and some that charge a minimal fee. The tasting cost $19.

The pool called us back and we found lounge chairs upstairs that overlooked the pool stage again. The Mr. Sexy Legs competition started and being upstairs made it difficult to choose our favorite pair of sexy legs. Entertaining show nonetheless. Our lounge chairs faced this friendly group from Minnesota who watched our chairs when we left and we did the same for them.

Once we cleaned up and met back up at the Atrium bar we attended our first comedy show. The constant activity and options offered by the cruise line was incredible.

Tuesday, April 3rd – Roatán, Honduras

My body clock woke me up early again and I was eager to explore Roatán. Roatán is one of Honduras’ Caribbean Bay Islands and part of the huge Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. The island is well known for scuba diving and beautiful beaches.

Tony, Brittany, and Kait and I bought the zip lining adventure package. Not going to lie. Bit scared at the thought of soaring through the air over a rainforest on a metal chord yet the adventurous side of me knew I would regret it if I didn’t go. Brittany and Kait were nervous too.

Our guide, Jeff, hilarious! During our ride up the mountain along a dusty unmarked road in the shuttle, he told us about Roatán like how their coral reef is considered one of the most beautiful in the world. He faced us as we took quick glances outside the windows while he shared facts and the history of this lush island.  The scenery was spectacular with the mountainous terrain, greenery, and the ocean beyond. Homes scattered along the dusty road with some locals sitting in their chairs enjoying the lovely weather. When you go on these excursions be sure to bring cash with you to tip your guides.

We parked at what looked like small cabins. There was a gift shop and outdoor store to buy food and drinks. One local was selling her homemade empanadas. The guides suited us up on the patio and handed us worn gloves to start on the solo zip lining. We all exchanged glances of both terror and pure excitement. Hook, snap, pull. Next.

The moment you hold onto the cable, hoist yourself up with both gloved hands, the guide hooks you to the cable, you use one hand to gauge the speed and the other to brake then you raise your legs and settle in—let go—feel the air fly passed as you soar above the jungle below. A freedom like I had never felt before. I took brief moments to take in each tree, the ocean, and gauging when to break so I didn’t slam into the guide waiting on the other end.

Superman Zip Lining was next. Exactly how you would imagine a Superman Zip to be zip lining on our tummy. Suited us up in these huge heavy orange suits,

 

helmet, and then waited for our turn to be hooked up to the cable.

Once we were hooked up to the 1,000-foot long cable, we had to raise our legs and steady our hands on the concrete platform like you are in plank position except your feet are not touching the ground. The second my body left the platform I soared like a bird above the jungles of Roatán – I felt a new type of confidence I had never felt before.

For the past three years, I have been dealing with chronic headaches after a concussion misaligned three vertebrae in my neck. Met with more than ten doctors and sought a variety of treatments to no avail except to learn the medical term for my headaches are chronic cervical muscle spasms. The latest treatment helped align my neck yet I still deal with regular tight headaches and muscle spasms. I share this with you since I know so many deal with chronic pain and I understand the difficulty of finding ways to enjoy life through the pain. I am still confident the right treatment is out there yet by no means do I let it stop me from enjoying any vacation. Nor do I let it stop me from any great times on land. But, yea, it’s frustrating.

Our adventure package included a suspension bridge hike through the jungle. I love hiking and getting dirty as much as I love putting a dress and heels on. Our guide walked us over multiple bridges and pointing out iguanas on tree branches. She let us try the seeds of a melon that reminded me of pomegranate seeds except not as tart.

Jeff mentioned taking us to a local hangout. When I travel, I love discovering places that are off the beaten path so you can try the local flavors. He said they served Iguana and though I love lizards, I couldn’t wait to try it! I love kangaroos too and tried kangaroo when I was in Australia four years ago. I felt bad for liking it since they are so cute! He also told us about the Monkey La-La drink too that is a local favorite.

Ever seen pictures or videos of those lizards that can run on their hind legs? They have a few names including the Jesus Lizard because these lizards can briefly walk on water until gravity pulls them under. Its scientific name is basilisk and in Roatán these lizards are called Monkey La-La. This is where the drink got its name since these lizards are found running all over Roatán.

The restaurant was a short walking distance from our port and we could see our ship once we arrived. “This is the Place to Be” blue sign was hanging above our heads as we walked closer to the outdoor restaurant. My group sat at a picnic table at the back of the restaurant which restaurant backed up to a hill and running creek. Chilling on a huge rock right over the wooden railing of where we were sitting was what appeared to be one angry Iguana staring us down. He did not take his beady eyes off of us! Poor guy, we hoped we would not be eating one of his friends or family members! There was also a huge rooster and other chickens pecking at the grass around the place to be.

Kait and I shared the Iguana that came with well-seasoned rice and beans and sliced grilled plantains. I loved the flavor of the Iguana but could have done without the ridiculously small bones. The Monkey La-La was served in paper cups and I used my own straw. A delicious combination of what tasted like chocolate, coconut, and rum. Roatán’s version of the Mudslide.

After lunch we walked along the dusty road back to our port to go shopping. If someone told me Roatán would have the best shops before I left, I would have bought so much more! They had a great variety of traditional touristy items like magnets, tees, and purses. I was the most impressed with their locally made gifts like mermaids made from recycled metal.

The rest of the day I was on a life high like none other. No caffeine required. Back on the ship, Kait and I put our swimsuits on and back to that awesome pool. First, a drink at the bar then met up with Tony and Brittany. This time we sat on the pool’s ledge and put our feet in the refreshing water and let the day’s adventure sink in. The pool was empty except for two handsome guys on the other side of the pool sipping red wine.

As the sun began to set we wandered back inside the ship to clean up for the evening. The Atrium bar became our meeting place. Dinner again at the Tropicana and then back to the Atrium bar to watch the night’s show, which was a take on of Dancing with the Stars. Cruise employees were paired up with a cruiser. One of our Minnesota friends, Noah, was one of the contestants so we cheered him on!

Our night ended at the dance club Bliss. One of my favorite sayings is, “Follow your bliss…” and this became an underlining theme for me the entire week. I love to dance and learned my brother could dance! We all had a blast dancing and requesting songs. Bliss would turn into our after-hours spot the rest of the trip.

 

Sea Life Charlotte-Concord Aquarium

While I do not have any children yet I am a big believer in exposing children to new experiences at a young age. I feel it is important for children in strollers to go to restaurants or places with loud noises to help acclimate them to sounds. This is also a saving grace for parents.

From the zoo, rock concerts to sporting events these experiences help mold children’s learning skills. One of my favorite memories as a child was going to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which was two hours south of where I grew up in California. I was mesmerized by the tropical fish, manta rays and sharks. Having learned how to swim at age three the water always felt like a sort of home.

My favorite exhibit was the Bat Ray Touch Tank, which now looking back as an adult, I hope was sanitary and safe for those angelic fish. Manta Rays or Bat Rays differ from Stingrays since they do not have a stinger on the tip of their tail. For those like myself who were fond of the Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin, was sadly stung by a Stingray in 2006.

As a young girl, I loved watching the Manta Rays glide through the water at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I could not miss the opportunity to touch them. I remember pushing my sleeve up, sticking my hand in the cool water and watching the little rays swim in circles and then feeling the smoothness of their body or fins beneath my fingertips. Magical.

My nephew is now 18-months old and had not been to an aquarium. My brother and his family live in the western part of North Carolina and between 5-6 hours from the closest beach. I was both surprised and excited to learn they lived nearish an aquarium.

Sea Life Charlotte-Concord Aquarium is connected to a massive mall and more impressive than you might think given its location. Since families are 6+ hours away from the closest beach, I found it remarkable that they built an aquarium for families. Inspiration starts at a young age, which is another reason I am an advocate for exposing children to educational activities. Their prices are affordable and I was impressed with how you take pictures first then enter the aquarium as if entering inside a submarine. They have a quick little turtle cartoon video and once over the doors open.

My nephew first was apprehensive about the swimming turtles but loved the bubble to see the small shark that was resting on the floor of the Shark Nursery. Go figure. 

I also remember touching a starfish as a young girl and was excited to see my nephew touch his first starfish! My brother and sister-in-law are amazing parents and I witnessed even more as we wandered through the fish tanks. My heart was so full watching my smart nephew soak in all the different marine life, of course, what he wanted to do most was be free to run around from tank-to-tank.

One highlight of any quality aquarium are the tunnels you can walk underneath as the fish, sharks, and manta rays swim above you. I love seeing the wondrous looks on children’s faces as they watch these marine animals swim.

Seahorses have always been a favorite of mine. I was giddy when I saw the little tank. There were two little love birds who caught my attention immediately. I love how they use their tails to communicate and show affection. I always thought they resembled mini-dragons of the sea more than mini-horses.

If you are ever in this part of North Carolina with your family, I highly recommend stopping at Sea Life Charlotte-Concord Aquarium.

Explore Sustainable Clothing Line: Lady Farmer

Who: Lady Farmer
What:
Kickstarter Party RSVP!
When:
Thursday, September 28th at 7:00 p.m.
Where:
Sally’s Middle Name
Why:
Learn more about this sustainable fashion line!
How: Uber, Lyft, Taxi, Bus, Car or by Foot!

In today’s world, dynamic new eco-minded companies are popping up all over the world. Mother and daughter team, Mary and Emma, saw a need to help reshape the fast fashion industry with their clothing line called Lady Farmer.

If you shop in H&M or Forever21, ever wonder why there is a huge abundance of clothing? How there are more clothes than will be ever be purchased? Americans throw away an alarming 11 million tons of clothing a year, which equates to roughly 70 pounds per person. These fibers find their way into our water systems and oceans. Biodegradable fabrics include cashmere, cotton, hemp, silk, and wool. Fabrics that are not biodegradable are polyester, nylon, rayon, and spandex. In order for an eco-fashion line, the clothing must break down and be compostable within 180 days.

After graduating from college, Emma taught English in France and then once back home she began to study design and aesthetics with Joy Thigpen. Joy specializes in working with clients to help their dream become a tangible reality. Emma has always been interested in fashion and once she learned more about the environmental and humanitarian issues that the fashion industry faces she was inspired to carve a niche in the industry.

Mary grew up in Tennessee and once her children were grown, she and her husband followed their dream of owning a farm in Maryland. She is one of the idea developers behind Lady Farmer. The concept is not meant to be exclusive to farmers because the clothing isn’t exclusively for farmers. The styles are farm-inspired because Lady Farmer cares about the about how the natural fiber (cotton, hemp, etc.) is grown and sees fiber as an agricultural product unlike synthetic fibers such as polyester, which is man-made from chemicals and plastic. The styles are ideal for any lady who prefers comfortable clothing. The products will be made organically in America with cultivated fibers and low-impact dye methods.

The Lady Farmer mission is simple yet powerful. They strive to cultivate a community for those seeking independence from existing food and fashion systems. The clothing line offers functional, fashionable clothing for the sustainable lifestyle.

On Thursday, September 28th at 7:00 p.m. come out to support and help kick-start Lady Farmer at Sally’s Middle Name! You can pre-order clothes for yourself or for others during the crowdfunding party and the line will be available Spring 2018.

 

Saving the Beaches: One Balloon Ribbon at a Time!

Distance should never be an issue when the cause, reason or person calls your heart…

The Surfrider Foundation was founded in 1984 by a group of surfers in Malibu, California that noticed a pollution issue needed to be addressed. They organized this foundation to help clean up our beaches and now it has expanded along

Photo Credit Emma Mascal

both coasts. This foundation welcomes anyone who wants to make a difference whether you surf or not. There are now 50,000 members and 90 chapters.

DC Chapter Cleanup Coordinator, Emma Mascal, has been doing beach cleanups with her family since high school. She participated with the Jersey Shore Surfrider Foundation where they did both cleanups and grass planting. She now works for the Environmental Protection Agency as a fellow with their Trash Free Waters program.

“I’ve maintained my role as a cleanup events coordinator because I find that I can share my job’s educational materials with my volunteer friends. And my community engagement role helps me tailor my fellowship work to meet the needs of the stakeholders,” Emma said about how her fellowship and position with the foundation work well together.

On Saturday, July 15, 2017 I woke up early to drive to Rehoboth Beach, DE to meet up with the other volunteers. Always up for an adventure, I was excited to finally get involved with beach cleanups. I have done Potomac Watershed cleanups in the past but the beach is where my heart is…

The DC Chapter met at Keybox Beach where Emma distributed the two trash bags and gloves. The yellow bags are for trash and the blue for recycling. I was surprised at how few volunteers showed up and hoped the numbers were higher for other cleanups. I met my beach cleanup buddy, Marina Feeser, when I first arrived. Marina happened to be the Secretary of the Ocean City Chapter and had wanted to get involved more with the DC Chapter.

“What an amazing difference it could make it everyone cared enough to clean up their own trash when they are at the beach. We all want to enjoy the beach so why not do our part to keep it clean?” Marina said.

As we trekked doing our beachcomb, I saw a small crab scurry into its hole in the sand as seagulls darted into the water to snatch a fish from the ocean. While growing up in Northern California, my parents took me to the beach starting at a very young age. I learned how to swim by age three and the beach has always felt like home. Marine life has fascinated me since then and it saddens me to learn what our trash has been doing to their livelihood.

We found balloon ribbons all over and tangled in seaweed and bits of popped balloons scattered all over the sand. I was appalled at how much balloon trash we found! There is another organization I learned about called Balloons Blow… Don’t Let Them Go! After this cleanup, I hope one day that balloons are banned from beaches.

“I am very concerned about balloon litter. It seems to be a common item that is found, it is dangerous to marine life and terrestrial life, and it hints at a more dangerous littering mentality because people often think it is ok to release balloons reveals” Emma said about what she finds the most alarming during cleanups.

I wish more people would realize the deadly implications that come with leaving their trash at the beach in particular. These bits of balloons or other plastics find their way not only swirling around our oceans but in the bellies of marine life where it slowly kills these animals.

Marina and I holding one huge piece of trash…only smiling since it will be removed.

Only an hour into cleaning the shore, the sky was darkening by the minute until finally it tore open and soaked us to the bone.  The weather was still warm and lovely.We laughed and continued to clean until Emma called us over to collect the trash bags to be recorded. The rain continued to pour as Emma weighed and recorded each bag. The 14 volunteers together collected 112 pounds of litter; 76 pounds of non-recyclable materials and 36 pounds of recyclable material.

Photo Credit Marina Feeser

I loved watching the raindrops hit the sand and create these tiny little holes.

Emma weighing the trash bags. Photo Credit Marina Feeser.

Once we were finished cleaning, Marina and I hung out at the beach and stood in the waves talking about ocean conservancy among other things. We started talking about dolphins and after I told her they are my favorite animal she screamed and pointed saying, “Look!” Sure enough two fins popped out of the water at the far left of the ocean. We watched them pop up a few more times as they swam across our view to the other side of the beach. I cannot help but wonder if there is something behind signs like that….

Marina told me about this incredible documentary called Chasing Coral on Netflix and I knew it was next on my movie watching rotation.

Once back in Washington, D.C. I opened my Netflix link and the first show advertisement was Chasing Coral! I learned too that it had only been released the day before on Netflix and I could not believe the serendipitous timing! I was mesmerized and enjoyed learning a part of ecosystem that is more important than the public realizes.

The coral reefs are the forests of our oceans. Imagine if our forests began dying the way the coral reefs have been? The forests aid in the oxygen we breath to stay alive. The implications of losing them will create a domino effect of sorts. I recommend that everyone watch this documentary and especially with your kids! Find out what you can do to help preserve our oceans and bring the coral back to life.

Join the fun with the Surfrider Foundation! There can never be too many people who want to make a difference to help keep our beaches cleaner and our marine life healthier. You don’t have to be a member to attend the beach cleanups. Bring your kids and make a long weekend out of volunteering. You can also camp at the beaches in Delaware too. Conservation starts at home.

We were soaked! Why not take a group photo?

Dinner in the Desert – Monday, April 24, 2017

Life is oftentimes best when you don’t have expectations. Enter each new experience with open eyes and an open heart. I tend to prefer surprises especially the adventurous kind…

Award-winning cookbook author, Culinary Diplomat, Culinary Historian, Chef and my dear friend Amy Riolo was invited back to Dubai to participate in a festival. She has participated in past book festivals and was excited to be invited once more. They asked her to demo three recipes from her cookbooks for the Sharjah Children’s and Reading Festival.

For the past three years I have assisted Amy at a variety of culinary events from prepping recipes to promoting her on social media as well as selling her cookbooks. There were many times that we said, “wouldn’t it be great to have a gig abroad to do these events?” Our opportunity arrived. She invited me to join her to Sharjah as her assistant. This will be part 1 of 3 blogs on our adventure.

Sharjah is one of seven emirs governed by Federal Supreme Council of The United Arab Emirates, which is a federation of hereditary absolute monarchies. The other six emirs are Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Dubai, Ras al-Khaimah and Umm al-Qaiwain. Prior to the discovery of oil in this region in the 1950s the UAE’s economy was dependent on fishing and pearl industry. These days tourism plays a huge role in the success of their economy.

On Monday, April 24th, Amy and I arrived to the Hotel Hilton Sharjah that morning from the smoothest flight I have ever taken with Emirates. The first plan on our itinerary was a Dinner in the Desert. We met the others who were going on the same trip outside our hotel and we all climbed into a SUV. I assumed we would take a ride to where a buffet would be waiting in the desert then turn around and go home. Oh no, so much more awaited us…

What began as a sightseeing trip quickly turned into a desert roller coaster on four wheels. Our driver coasted down dunes on the side, sand flying passed our windows like waves turning and twisting through the soft beige sand like a runaway train. We watched as other cars in our caravan appeared to drop off the side of dunes, disappear for a few moments only to twist upright and then dip down again around another dune. I was in 7th Heaven filming segments with my phone. There was a family from the Philippines with their daughter whose 7th birthday was that day. When she was in the middle seat in front of me she would raise her hands if on a roller coaster. The drops were so good I felt my tummy take a few dives as if I were on a real coaster.

One of our sightseeing stops along the way.

Our driver had the coolest air freshener. He puts the scented wood or called ‘oud’ into the fancy lighter and then lights it like one would incense.

Our driver would make stops along with the other cars in our caravan for photo opportunities. I ran out, sandaled feet sinking into the warm soft beige sand, wind whipping around me and sand swirling around my body tickling my legs and arms. Amy and I both were attempting to take beautiful pics as the wind seemed to laugh at us.

Little windy…

Back in the car and off to another scenic spot, I caught sight of my first camel. The animal-loving five-year-old in me felt giddy with excitement at the thought to finally ride one.

The camels were held in large cages while a few walked around freely with one rope tied around their front ankles preventing them from running away. The one closest to us began moaning and walking back toward the huge cages. Rumor had it she was walking back to her baby. I worried that would be our only camel encounter but the night was young.

The camel momma.

Once back in the cars and off again the drive was long but I loved every second. Watching the wind delicately pick up the sand and swirl it in circles was like watching a desert ballet of sorts.

As we pulled up to our destination, I immediately spotted three camels sitting on the sand equipped with colorful ornate saddles and a man holding their rope leash. One of my travel dreams was about to become a reality.

A little village began to emerge before our eyes after we walked passed the camels. Situated in a huge wide semi-circle were adorable grass huts like what Bedouins built and stopped off along their journey through the desert. Some were filled with low tables and seating cushions lined around each table. Others were filled with pottery, some empty and there was one Henna hut.

I walked over to the camel, greeted its handler and then gracefully as possible hooked one leg over the saddle and hoisted myself on top. Camels have long legs. They stick their butts up first which was a ride in itself holding on as it steadied itself on all four hoofed feet. The handler took me around in a circle snapping pictures with my phone from different angles. Once back on solid ground, I tipped him and thanked him for being a fab photographer.

Between some of the huts people were hiking up the sand dune and then sliding down on a snowboard. I don’t ski or snowboard but that would not stop me from carrying a board that was almost bigger than me up the steep dune. Once at the top a guy from England was getting ready to go down. My feet looked like child’s feet trying fit and walk in mom’s high heels. I felt unstable and wobbly and let gravity take me down the hill. I slid easily at first until more than half way down and the front of my board was stuck in the sand. I couldn’t budge it out of the soft sand. The guy was sliding down and I quickly held my arms out to ask for his help to pull me out as he was sliding. Instead he lost his balance and fell and we both burst into laughter. I was so glad the guy below recorded the bail!

Amy was having her Henna done and I waited with her to snap some pictures. I was next. My first Henna. I had her do the design on my left hand and forefinger so I could use it for pictures to post on social media.

Amy having he henna done on both hands.

The tantalizing smells of cardamom, turmeric and curry began to waft through the air as everyone got in line to fill their plates then we settled on the seating cushions. I enjoyed sitting on the ground since it felt comfortable and cozy. The sun was beginning to descend below the dunes and I was far from ready for this evening to come to an end.

The evening was indeed far from over with two incredible live shows. The first was a dance by a Whirling Dervish. The Whirling Dervishes originated in 13th century Turkey in the Islamic sect of Sufism. The religious dance is called the tanoura and was performed to express emotion and achieve the wisdom of God. In more recent years the dance has been performed for tourists than for religious purposes. The dancer spins in a circle the entire time while wearing a huge colorful skirt and appears to look like a human spinning top. Arabic music plays to the beat of his spinning. He holds different items while in motion that he alternates.

The second was a fire dancer. Yes, he literally danced with long stick-like rods that are lit with fire on the ends and he spins them around his body as he dances around. I prayed he did not accidentally let go of one! I love fire but from a distance. The dance itself was amazing to see all the different ways he could spin the fiery rods.

As the evening came to a close, the three camels were walking along the top of the dunes being led by their handler. They sauntered across the sand their saddles and bodies striking against the dark night a scene that will remain tattooed in my memory long after the Henna fades from my hand.

 

Chef Amy Riolo and Alex Safos to Host Another Culinary Tour – Greece

By Lisa M. Comento

Who: Chef Amy Riolo and Alex Safos
What: Greece Cuisine, Culture & Wellness Tour
When: June 11-22, 2017
Where: Athens, Ikaria, Samos
Why: Learn more on Chef Amy Riolo’s blog
How: Payment information (New Deadline April 26th)

Photo by Chef Amy Riolo

The same duo, Chef Amy Riolo and Alex Safos, who led an amazing culinary tour of Morocco last fall have another tour lined up in Greece. Chef Amy will head the culinary portion while Alex will lead the cultural tours. The tour includes three private cooking classes as well as lectures on the Greco-Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman influences on food. There will be two dynamic workshops that Chef Amy will lead. The first on olive oil and the second on culinary medicine and how to incorporate these new habits into your daily routine.

“We chose locations which are representative of all aspects of the Greek lifestyle – from cosmopolitan and historic Athens to the gorgeous island of Ikaria – known for its idyllic ‘blue zone’ lifestyle, and Samos, for its beauty, beaches, gastronomy, and anthropological sites,” Chef Amy said about why they chose Athens, Ikaria, and Samos.

Imagine traveling to Athens, Greece to see the Pathenon’s architectural beauty that was built in 447 BCE. Wander through Syntagma Square tasting flaky pastries or sipping a frappe. Chef Amy will educate you on the history of Grecian cuisine as you sample the local fare and take in the sites and sounds of Greece.

Image Source: www.theculturetrip.com

Hop on a plane with your tour group to the island of Ikaria known as the “island where people forget to die.” Ikaria is one of few “blue zones” in the world known for their inhabitants to live a measurably longer life. This longevity is credited to living a very active healthy lifestyle. Chef Amy will host a “culinary medicine” workshop where you can learn healthier eating habits and some of the locals’ secrets to living longer.

Image Source: www.MustSeePlaces.eu

Step onto a ferry for the last leg of the tour to the island of Samos where you will discover enchanting forests. You will be staying steps away from the beach and Homer’s “wine dark sea.” Embark on a tour of the Temple of Heraion, the ancient sanctuary of the goddess, Hera. Sample Greek wines at the Museum of Samos Wines in the island’s capital city of Vathy.

Image Source: www.telegraph.co.uk

“I love the energy and climate and feel at home there. I’m looking forward to offering our guests a new way to approach The Mediterranean lifestyle by showing them how history and culture combined in each of the locations we will be visiting to contribute to the culture today. I will offer practical ways to implement the delicious and healthful eating habits at home, which will be transformative for many,” Chef Amy said on why she is especially looking forward to this tour.

The 4th century BCE philosopher, Epicurus once said, “We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink.” This simple concept is a timeless metaphor for living happy prosperous life and the 2017 Greek Cuisine, Culture, and Wellness tour.

 

 

Amy Riolo to Lead a Moroccan Culinary Tour
Friday, May 20, 2016

Chef Amy Riolo during one of her Moroccan cooking classes.

Chef Amy Riolo during one of her Moroccan cooking classes.

Culinary Diplomat, award-winning cookbook author and Celebrity Chef Amy Riolo will lead an incredible Moroccan culinary tour between November 1st-12th. Amy has taught Moroccan cooking classes and lectured on Moroccan cuisine at the Smithsonian with the dream of one day taking people to the country on a culinary tour. Once she met Alex Safos who has been organizing educational trips to Morocco for years her dream became a reality.

Chef Amy Riolo being filmed in front of a Moroccan TV camera crew.

Chef Amy Riolo being filmed in front of a Moroccan TV camera crew.

“The sensory delights of Morocco are a feast for all five senses from the sounds of the music, the streets, the calls to the prayer and nature to the smells of sweet spices and flower waters to the sights. The full rich colors and textures to the feel of the beautiful fabrics and the tastes…sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and savory. There is something for everyone,” Amy said on the wonders of Morocco.

moroccan spices

The Moroccan Treasures Cuisine & Culture Tour will begin in the famed cosmopolitan city of Casablanca. There you will enjoy a guided cultural and architectural tour, and stay in a 4 star hotel located in the city center. The trip continues to the city of Fes followed by Marrakesh. Fes, considered the spiritual heart and soul of Morocco, has an old city feel and frontier-like spirit. The Rose City or The Pearl of the South that Marrakesh is often called you will explore the rooftop gardens, boutiques, and luxe restaurants.

moroccan tajine

The trip continues toward the Atlantic coast where you will visit Essaouira known as the “Windsurfing Capital of Africa.” On this leg of the trip you will visit an Argan oil cooperative and learn about the types of products that derive from the nut-bearing Argan tree. Ever see pictures of those goats hanging in trees like Christmas ornaments? This is a normal occurrence in Morocco and quite iconic. These tree-chilling goats facilitate the oil process by eating the Argan berries and depositing kernels that are then ground and pressed into oil.

moroccan argan tree with goats

“Probably M’semen, which are a handmade type of layered pastry dough. They are often called pancakes or crepes but they are much more rich than that. They contain rich layers that are buttered with aged clarified butter making them extremely tasty. They are eaten for breakfast or as a snack with honey,” Amy said of her favorite type of Moroccan food.

M'semen

M’semen

This past April Amy had the opportunity to go to Verona, Italy with The Italian Trade Agency to attend some exciting epicurean events. During this visit she met the master olive oil taster from Morocco. He is considered the #1 in Africa and he promised to create a special tasting for the culinary tour group. She also knows the owners of Dar les Cigognes, where you will be staying in Marrakesh.

moroccan olive oil

As a Culinary Historian as well, Amy has been passionate about culinary history since she was a little girl after being inspired by her father. She now uses this passion to educate others around the nation and abroad. She was first introduced as a Culinary Historian by The National Geographic after giving many lectures there. She feels it is important to understand the way in which cultures use specific foods and when these foods were used.

Join Amy Riolo this November for a culinary tour of a lifetime! The deadline to register is May 23rd. Register through the Moroccan Culinary Tour page.

 

Bells of the Cathedral
Saturday, July 18, 2015

“As I am listening to the bells of the cathedral, I am thinking of your voice…”
– Suzanne Vega (Tom’s Diner)

Sounds of San Pietro’s ancient bells softly awoke my jetlagged body from a dreamless sleep. Smells of

Roma Produce

The beautiful view from Vania's kitchen window.

The beautiful view from Vania’s kitchen window.

illy espresso began drifting into the room as I heard Vania preparing breakfast in her stunning Italian kitchen. Stepping into the kitchen with groggy eyes I saw she had our espresso ready on our placemats as she busily set the rest of our breakfast. Omelets and coffee normally start my American mornings whereas eggs in the morning are not a common Italian breakfast. Instead she offered small biscuits or yogurt with corn flake cereal and honey.

The heat wave I was warned about was no joke with temps reaching into the 40s, celsius that is, which makes that in the 100s. The humidity made D.C. summers seem near comfortable though being a fan of summer I still preferred this weather over a Polar Vortex any day. The common water fountains throughout Rome saved us all this summer. Some used them as showers sticking their heads underneath the water spout while others washed their feet or simply refilled their water bottles.

Our morning began wandering through the indoor market marveling over the array of fresh veggies, meats and cheeses. I saw veggies I never knew existed! Their shear size alone was mind blowing. The variety of veggies that colorfully dotted the slanted shelves were a foodies dream.

Vania and I were women on a mission with a long list that ranged from sight seeing to shopping. Moments we found ourselves lost in translation during a conversation we consulted the translator app on our phones while bursting into fits of laughter as we tried to find the correct word in our language.

A fellow makeup lover, she took me to Kiko. Fabulous sales lined the front part of the store. “Hair shadow?” I thought to myself as I saw this spherical applicator. A salesperson noticed my apparent interest in this new make up concept and offered to apply it to my hair. When in Rome, right? They streaked the green shadow like a highlight. Only a few Euros? I bought the hair shadow.

Quick selfie styling the hair shadow before crossing the street.

Quick selfie styling the hair shadow before crossing the street.

Cucina Romana

Inside Cucina RomanaWalking down a side cobblestone road under the molto caldo sun we came up to a restaurant called Su& Giù Cucina Romana. The friendly waitress sat us in a window seat in the quaint restaurant. I was back in Italy. The surreal reality sunk in at that very moment. Italian wine bottles filled the narrow shelf behind me more for decoration than monetary value.

The first time it hit me that I was in Italy I standing in Piazza Navona in Rome at 19 years old on a pre-tour to Paris, London and Rome before studying abroad to Florence. These young boys grabbed our wrists when we were beside the fountain and began making a bracelet around our wrists before we had a chance to say no. My friends and I exchanged glances and figured it couldn’t cost too much lire! I remember watching him twist the different colored strings into a lovely bracelet and as he did I took a few moments to take in my surroundings of the long wide narrow square. Italy. I had finally arrived. We all wore the bracelet the entire three months we studied in Florence.

Back to 2015 and Su & Giù Cucina Romana. With a menu that made it impossible to choose only one dish. After a grueling time trying to decide what to order I settled on the seafood pasta. The plating alone was artwork.

Cucina Romana Dish

With happy tummies we ventured to the first of the sites. As we rounded the corner to the Trevi Fountain, to our sad dismay, we discovered it was under construction. Crowds of people with squinted eyes and sorrowful tones gazed upon one of the world’s most celebrated fountains barricaded behind metal fences. “There goes finding love in Roma!”I thought with a laugh. Situated in front of the fencing was a small hole one could still throw coins into so I tossed two over my shoulder (took a quick selfie) and listened as they clanked down the metal pipe. Come on wishes!

Sixteen years had flown by since the last time I walked on Italy’s soil. I swore then I would return after college but life happened and prevented me from returning.

Clothes MarketsVania was on a shoe mission and I was one happy shopper whether it was a boutique down a side street or flipping through the clothes racks at the outdoor markets. “When in Rome…” as they say, and Vania would comment throughout our time together that I was not a tourist with her making me feel like any other local. The saying took a whole other meaning for me during this trip.

Next on our plan was The Colosseum. My memory of seeing The Colosseum appear when I was 19 was slightly different from seeing it at age 35. I swore I remembered walking along soil at ruin level and our tour guide pointing out that we were walking on fragments of buildings from ancient Roman times. I recall at that moment looking down at the bit of broken marble wedged into the solid ground below. Imagining these structures whole and during their day when Rome was a thriving city. Our tour guide pointing out where the archeologists discovered that there was a Pagan burial ground pointing out the misshapen grass marks and how many people could be buried below its surface.

Roman roads toward The Colosseum were wide with both tourists and other Italians walking alongside one another without feeling like everyone is fighting for space. Couples. So many couples were holding hands all around me. Kisses shared on benches. Rome was filled with romance. As a shy 19 year old, this would not have been something I noticed as I had as an adult. I wondered if every city in Italy was like Rome? I did recall Venice being filled romance yet somehow it was different than the romantic energy I felt along Roman streets.

First Colosseum Viewthe colosseumSuddenly The Colosseum began to come into view…chills. I was 19 again walking beside new friends with this new freedom and wandering the grounds of a once dreamed about land. The most magnificent funky trees known as Stone Pines or “umbrella pine” surrounded this historic gem.

Vania snapped some pictures of me in front letting me spend more time alongside the manmade wonder. It was just him and me. We had some reminiscing to do.

I enjoyed not having the day planned out or over-planning to know which sight we would see first. I let the day happen. This was also more about spending time with a dear friend I met four years ago.

I barely recognized Pizza Navona upon our arrival. Waves of people, strollers and stand after stand of posters and paintings of Italian landscapes covered the entire square. I swam through the crowds from one end to the other sneaking a selfie when possible. This was not the square I remembered yet looked forward to return again when tourist swimming was not part of the experience. How I did not remember snap a few pictures of the craziness I will never know…

Pizza was on tonight’s menu. Vania took me to Ristorante Terno Secco located along Via Andrea Doria where we had a sweet waiter from Egypt. I ordered the Capricciosa pizza topped with mozzarella cheese, prosciutto, mushrooms, artichokes and tomatoes—an absolute new favorite.

Lisa at Terno Secco

Drifting off to sleep I thought, “Please don’t let this trip go by too quickly…”

 

Ciao, Roma!
Friday, July 17, 2015

To travel means to open not only your mind to new experiences but also the opening of ones heart to the unexpected beauty, tastes of the culture, and roll with bumps along the way…

Italy called me back year after year since studying abroad in Firenze in 1999 and each year I would say to myself, “Someday, I promise to return!” That someday became Friday, July 17, 2015.

Social Media…it’s a small world after all…..

Social Media continues to make the world smaller as it connects people with similar life passions. Over a year ago Turin Epicurean and I connected on Twitter over something foodie related. Our friendship quickly moved to email. This year would mark the second year of Turin Epicurean Capital that she, Lucia Hannau, organized to promote tourism in her native Torino, Italy. She invited me to participate as a panelist in February for the roundtable that would be held in July. How could I pass up this opportunity? I was honored.

Stories are one aspect that truly make us human. To share an experience with others that can be carried down for generations or to educate others through the spoken word. I feel in order to properly share my stories I need to share a bit of what is happening below the surface during each adventure…

Change. Cambio. Bellissimi ricordi….o piu?

On June 1st my life took many turns in one day. This day brought the decision to move to a new apartment. I purchased a new phone after work. Then, that same evening, I began chatting online with an Italian chef and as the fates would have it—we both were attending the same event the following evening only to learn we were also neighbors.

Three solid weeks of spending time together until he left for Italy on vacation for a month to visit his family and friends. Si. He would be there the same time I would be there. My trip would begin in Rome where he was coincidentally from and would be most of the time. He said we could meet if it worked with his travel schedule.

I find it amazing how you can connect with people sometimes even when there are moments of being literally lost in translation. Personality, chemistry and similar background stories make it possible to have a friendship. This happened twice before with two friends. One was from Japan and the other the Puglia region in Italy who I would spend time with first when I flew into Rome. This also happened with him yet it was too soon to ask questions—simply enjoy each moment.

From Russia With…Love?

Uber took me to the Rosslyn Metro Station to pick up the 5A bus to Dulles. My flight was at 3:00 p.m. and my first stop was Moscow, Russia. Why—you may ask, the flight cost was too good to not book.

The airport selfie.

The airport selfie.

In line to board, a tall blonde stood behind me and we both started chatting immediately. She was from California and half Italian like me—and our seats were beside one another! Then laughed after learning we both booked this random “Moscow” flight since the price was too damn good. I was not the only one! Lindsay and I became fast friends talking about everything from boys to health and science over the course of the near ten-hour flight. Once in Moscow, her flight from to Venice took off before mine.

The final flight from Moscow to Rome was only a few hours and I found myself more anxious by the minute. The second the planes wheels skidded on the Italian runway, I closed my eyes and thought, “Ciao, Roma!”

I met my dear friend Vania over four years ago when she was on holiday in D.C. In very broken Italian and English we were still able to communicate and build a friendship that extended to Facebook. Time and again she invited me to Rome and I finally took her up on her offer! She told me which bus to take and waited minutes till I recognized her walking toward me. Italian cheek kisses and hugs ensued!

11745929_10152897920936587_7680366117900368533_n The heat wave in Italia was no joke. The wave originated in  North Africa and had wiggled its way north planting itself for  weeks on end upon Italy’s fairytale land. Vania’s apartment  was absolutely beautiful! Clean, fresh and the walls were  adorned with impressionist paintings by the artist who  owned the apartment she was renting. She prepared  antipasto dishes of Italian meats and cheeses. A bottle of  Donna Marzia Vermentino from her native Puglia had been  chilling in her fridge waiting for my arrival. New varietal to  me; loved every drop!

The Mozzarella di Bufala melted in my mouth the way no American mozzerella could. The cheese originates from Campania from domestic Italian water buffalo. One bite and the inside of the cheese ball was soft with a subtle saltiness; savory and creamy all in the same taste. She paired the usual olives, prosciutto and another meat that was new to me called mortadella. I could live on dinners like this—snacking, sipping good wine and among good company.

After hours of catching up, laughing and finishing off the Vermentino.. jetlag and lack of sleep hit me

like truck lost on a dark Nevada country road. I fought sleep, hit the snooze button and somehow found20150717_164941 a second wind to walk with Vania to see San Pietro lit up at nighttime. Magical. The statues seemed to come alive and turn to speak to one another. What were they saying? Joking about the tourists who have looked up at them in awe for hundreds of years? Discuss the latest pope?

She told me that sometimes she just comes to sit and think here and I could understand how a place such as this could offer such comfort and inspiration.

20150717_170019 (1)The joy of traveling is to always appreciate the unexpected.  No matter how random or absolutely magical. We stumbled  upon a VW rally. You read that correctly. Stepping between  revamped VW’s of all kinds and even one with a stuffed  Minion chillin’ in the back seat!

That first night I slept with a permanent smile.