Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Rovinj, Croatia in Photos

Blogger Tricks

Monday, April 21, 2014

Destination Weddings & Honeymoons: Scottsdale

Scottsdale is one of my favorite places to visit, so I was really happy to gush all about its weddings offerings for the April/May 2014 edition of Destination Weddings & Honeymoons. It's on newsstands now, so brides-to-be, go pick it up! This is one of my favorite wedding and honeymoon planning mags out there.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Dubrovnik, Croatia in Photos

Monday, April 7, 2014

Outdoor Adventure in Phoenix

Outdoor Adventure in Phoenix
Photo courtesy of Visit Mesa
One of the things that I miss most about Arizona is the desert landscape.

I never realized how special it was to be so surrounded by nature on a regular basis. Weekend hikes, drives up and down the 101 freeway, even walking from my car to the coffee shop offered up the chance to connect with mountains, cacti and bright blue skies.

Arizona's Sonoran Desert is one of the world's most diverse ecosystems in the world and one of only a few places where you can see the Saguaro cactus in all its glory. I wrote about some of my favorite desert adventures for Virgin Atlantic's Flying in the Face of Ordinary blog this month.

Check 'em out for some serious travel inspiration!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Photo Tour: My Croatia

I realize I've covered Croatia extensively over the past weeks and that many of you are probably ready to move on. However, I couldn't do so without a more personal look into the country. Croatia is a trendy vacation spot these days, but to me, it's so much more.

Croatia is happy memories. It's family. It's home.

Here's a look at my Croatia, starting with my birthplace.

Bakar is a tiny, tiny shipping town along the northern coast, very close to the city of Rijeka. In my head, Bakar is a more residential, more rugged Rovinj. This is where my mom was born and raised, where my parents met and married, and where my brother and I were born. It's where my brother went to kindergarten and where my 2-year-old self would take daily walks with my aunt to the local bakery. She'd stock me up with enough fresh-baked pastries to last a toddler the entire week and then we'd go home and play until my parents got off work.

I don't remember much of our life in Bakar, but this is the closest to "home" I feel when we visit Croatia.

I always say (and probably have on this blog before) that Smiljan (in Lika) is the birthplace of the world's two smartest men: Nikola Tesla...and my dad. Actually, Tesla's childhood home and current museum is literally a stone's throw from where my dad grew up and where my uncle still lives. Most people know Lika for Plitvice National Park. I know it as a place where I ran like a madman through wide-open fields as a kid; a place where rolling hills, babbling brooks and forested mountains hold all kinds of delicious treasures.

I often imagine my dad as a young boy, helping tend the family farm. Watching over his horses. Finding the kind of boyhood trouble that you can only find in a place as beautiful and wild as Smiljan. Smiljan is a farming village and therefore is full of people that we Americans would refer to as "salt of the earth" - hardworking, genuine, no bullshit.

Most of our family is dispersed between Croatia and Germany but we were lucky enough to grow up with one set of aunt/uncle and cousins nearby in Arizona: my dad's sister and her family. Our cousins are actually more like siblings to us and my aunt and uncle on this side like extended parents. These days, they all live elsewhere on the East Coast. But my aunt and uncle own a vacation home near the town of Crikvenica, which has become like our home-away-from-home.

The times when we're all there together are the best times. We spend our days between the beach and their patio - eating, reading and napping, mostly. Besides laughing with my aunts, one of my favorite things to do here is watch them do crosswords. I have an uncle who also lives close by and so we often have coffee dates with him or he'll whip up massive, all-day feasts.

It's always the most laid-back part of our vacation and I never feel like we get enough time here to family.

PHOTOS BY: Stjepan Alaupovic

Monday, March 10, 2014

Destinations: Zagreb Restaurants

Style Jaunt Destinations: Zagreb Restaurants, Punjene paprike
Punjene paprike (stuffed peppers)
Dining out has never been a major part of our visits to Croatia. With so many aunts, uncles and cousins back home, we spend most of our time hopping (happily) from one feast to the next. (I say "feast" because that's what they are. Rarely is a Croatian family meal less than 3 or 4 courses.)

On every visit, I make sure to get my fill of the classics: my aunt's stuffed peppers, my other aunt's homemade dumpling soup, and my uncle's octopus salad. There's usually a roast lamb with farm-fresh potatoes in there somewhere, too. And on our most recent trip, an all-day eat-a-thon where my dad's brother whipped up a savory veal goulash, followed a couple of hours later by BBQ and grilled vegetables from his garden.

Actually, I don't think I've ever felt the sensation of hunger on any one of my visits. Shocker.

So when I found out we'd be spending a few extra non-family days in Zagreb this last time, I went on a mission to try some of the city's best restaurants. I've been hearing a lot about Zagreb's culinary scene as of late and I had to get a taste for myself. Luckily, our stay in Zagreb was scheduled for the beginning of our vacation; we went with open minds and empty stomachs.

Style Jaunt Destinations: Zagreb Restaurants, Punjene paprike
Digging in.
It's best to start with the basics. While no one will ever touch my aunt's punjene paprike (stuffed peppers), these came close. Unfortunately for you, I wasn't yet in journalist mode so I forgot to write down the name of this spot. What I can tell you is that it's at the bottom of Zagreb's Uspinjača (funicular), on the right-hand side when you're looking at the cable cars.

Stuffed peppers are a Croatian staple and we grew up eating them here in the states, too, but they're never quite the same. There's something about the peppers in Croatia - large like bell peppers, but a pale green color and slightly more tangy - that you can't find in the U.S.

Style Jaunt Destinations: Zagreb Restaurants, Trilogija
Škripavac sir on toast with black truffle creme
Trilogija is one of Zagreb's most acclaimed restaurants. The menu changes daily and they use all local Croatian ingredients. Pictured here is a toast appetizer topped with black truffle creme and Škripavac sir, which comes from Lika and roughly translates to creaky cheese. It's named as such because of its texture and the sensation you get when biting into a piece. Trilogija had a fantastic selection of Croatian wines by the glass, including our recent favorite, Malvazija. (A dry white I'd compare to sauvignon blanc.)

Style Jaunt Destinations: Zagreb Restaurants, Basement Bar
Basement Bar for delicious and affordable Croatian wine.
By the time we were finished with our meal at Trilogija, traveler's euphoria had set in and we weren't ready to call it a night. We asked our waiter for a recommendation on where the locals go to drink after-hours and he recommended Basement Bar, which is directly across from the unnamed restaurant with the delicious stuffed peppers.

Between sips of varietals from Slavonia to Dalmatia, I spent most of my time here doing mathematical conversions of the Croatian kuna to U.S. dollar - $3.50 for a huge pour of really, really good wine! Oh, if only Croatia weren't switching to the Euro...

Style Jaunt Destinations: Zagreb Restaurants, Bistro Agava
Once the sun sets, Bistro Agava is perfect for a romantic dinner.
Probably one of the most romantic meals we've had in Croatia, I loved Bistro Agava's tiered outdoor patio. Its pale facade sparkles during sunset and low-lit lamps and candles set the perfect mood at night. Again, an unbelievable wine selection. (Sember rose, Markota cabernet sauvignon and Tomac Millennium sparkling are among the must-tries.) For food, started with fresh tomato soup and seasonal salad. As a main, homemade orecchiette pasta with smoked mussels in a bell pepper sauce.

Style Jaunt Destinations: Zagreb Restaurants, Pivnica Mali Medo
Gotta go with the classics...
While pounding the pavement on a hot afternoon, scouting locations for our Zagreb Style Jaunt TV episode, we decided to break at Pivnica Mali Medo (er, Little Bear's Brewery) for a round of locally-brewed beer and ćevapčići (rolled, grilled minced meat). These delightful little kebabs are best served with sliced raw onion, salt, and lepinja, a Croatian flatbread that novices will compare to pita bread. 

(In my not-so-humble opinion, lepinja is sooo much better than pita bread. It's chewier, gooey-er, thicker and all-around more satisfying.) 

Any way, there are only two acceptable sides for ćevapčići and they are: ajvar (a vegetable relish) and kajmak (Croatian sour cream). American sour cream can be substituted if you don't have kajmak but never, ever under any circumstances order ketchup with your ćevapčići. Got it? Dobro.

One restaurant that we didn't get to try but I've heard fantastic things about is Pod Gričkim Topom. Next time!

PHOTOS BY: Stjepan Alaupovic

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Where to Stay: Hotel Bellevue in Dubrovnik

I expected our stay at Hotel Bellevue to be great. I knew we were walking into what's considered to be one of Croatia's best hotels; still, nothing could have prepared me for this. It happens every time I visit. The Adriatic views always leave me speechless and Bellevue's got some of the best panoramas I've seen in all of my trips home.

Its construction into the side of a cliff was clearly strategic!

Bellevue's design makes great use of its natural surroundings. Almost everywhere you walk - even in the hotel's airy lobby - you're drenched in happy sunlight. After a busy week in Zagreb, it was the perfect way to unwind for two days.

(By the way, flights from Zagreb to Dubrovnik on Croatia Airlines are so easy - barely an hour. Highly recommend.)

The first thing we did after check-in was plop down at Nevera, Bellevue's beach restaurant, where we tucked into a feast of fresh seafood, salad, homemade bread, and more than our fair share of gemišt (white wine and sparkling water) and Pelinkovac (an herbal liquor, best served on the rocks with a lemon twist). All local, of course.

We hit Vapor for dinner one night, where we watched the sun set over the bay and had one of our favorite meals in Dubrovnik. Other than that, it was a lot of swimming and one trip into Dubrovnik's main square, which is an easy and scenic walk from Hotel Bellevue, for dinner with friends. You can see an exterior shot of Bellevue from this pedestrian pathway in the last image below.

Part of Bellevue's beachfront is actually public, so there's a mix of hotel guests and locals, which I love (but not everyone does). One afternoon, two boats carrying local water polo teams rolled in for what we were told was a regional tournament. There was music, fans, and an intense game. Definitely unexpected, but really cool to see!

We didn't get a chance to check out the spa (too much eating and beaching to do!), but the space is beautiful with floor-to-ceiling windows and an indoor pool.

See more photos of Dubrovnik in the Facebook album!

MORE INFO: Hotel Bellevue
PHOTOS BY: Stjepan Alaupovic