Finding Hygge in the Chaos of Moving House + Creamy Tomato Basil Bisque Recipe

I can hear the rain outside and I have a cup of tea. As I type this, I’m bundled up in my sweats and a blanket. It’s officially soup and stew season. My favourite. But 99% of my kitchenware – so,  everything – is packed up. Naturally.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about beginning a year of immersing myself in the Danish concept of hygge. You may wonder why I decided to start this at the same time a moving house. I do, too. Ha. But really, it’s been a good way to balance out the chaos. Particularly since I made a point of keeping one corner completely box free, which has also helped. Behold my temporary and slightly disheveled hyggekrog (cozy space):

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Between my cozy corner, yoga, and The Brit making me laugh, it’s been good. (I’m looking forward to having a proper hyggekrog in the new place. The Brit has been made aware that décor shopping is happening in the very near future.)

Except for the lack of home-made soup. When I have access to my pretty pots and pans again, I will be making two of my favourite recipes: Creamy Tomato Basil Bisque and Spelt Flour Soda Biscuits for sopping it all up – recipes below! I cannot find the photos for a particular instance of this meal combo in 2014, but it’s a good memory of a nice meal with friends when things were feeling a bit wobbly. My laptop hard drive had died and, separately, my life was beginning a huge shift; but I was in one of my happy places in the world – Scotland! – and in good company. I decided that making it my turn to cook dinner would cheer me up, and it absolutely did.

CREAMY TOMATO BASIL BISQUE

  • Servings: 6-8
  • Difficulty: Easy
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INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped (1/2 cup)
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced (1 Tbs.)
  • 2 28-oz. cans diced tomatoes (try to get these unsalted)
  • 2 tsp. honey
  • 1 tsp. balsamic or sherry vinegar
  • 1 tsp. dried basil
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 1/2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
  • 1/3 cup almond milk (if you’re feeling decadent or can do dairy, whipping cream or half-and-half are amazing to add)
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil, for garnish

METHOD:

  • Heat oil in a dutch oven or stock pot over medium heat. Add onion and garlic; cook 5 minutes. The onion pieces will be translucent.
  • Add tomatoes, sugar, vinegar, basil, bay leaf, and broth. Cover, and simmer 10 minutes
  • Remove bay leaf  (Remember to do this or you will end up with bay leaf bits in your soup when its blended. They hurt your tongue…)
  • Purée soup in blender, food processor, or with a stick blender (this is what I use) until smooth. (OPTIONAL: Strain through a mesh strainer into a large bowl (or if you were using a blender, back into the pot); return to simmer.)
  • Remove from heat, and stir in chosen “dairy” – I use almond milk
  • Season with salt and pepper, if desired
  • Garnish with basil (optional)
  • Serve with with grilled cheese sandwiches or with some soda biscuits. Bon appetit!

HEALTHY SPELT FLOUR SODA BISCUITS

  • Servings: 12 biscuits
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 cups spelt flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp (or less) salt
  • 2-3 tbsp fresh chopped or dried herbs to taste (I use fresh rosemary and thyme)
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 3/4 cup almond milk or whatever milk you have on hand

METHOD:

  • Preheat oven to 450 F
  • Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper
  • Whisk flour, baking soda, and salt together in a medium sized mixing bowl
  • Whisk in herbs
  • Stir in olive oil and milk with a spatula or a wooden spoon (they are the best) until dough comes together.
  • Use your hands to lightly gather dough into a ball
  • Separate dough into 12 discs (they don’t have to be perfect!) on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper
  • Bake for 10-12 minutes or until biscuits have risen and are a light golden brown (The longer you leave them in, the crispier they will be.)

If soda biscuits aren’t your jam, this soup is also excellent with a grilled cheese sandwich.

What is your favourite soup?

Soup is a lot like a family. Each ingredient enhances the others; each batch has its own characteristics; and it needs time to simmer to reach full flavor.

~ Marge Kennedy

The West Coast Hygge Project and Honey Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

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The Little Book of Hygge!

Autumn is my favourite season because it’s when I get to pull out my cozy sweaters and wrap myself up in my blanket scarf. It also means the temperature has cooled down enough for me to properly bake again. (My favourite baking recipe is at the end of this post!) Autumn is also a season of change.

Continue reading “The West Coast Hygge Project and Honey Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies”

Feeling Posh in Edinburgh

I love Edinburgh. If you know me personally, you have heard this a million times. (Sorry, not sorry.) Why do I love it so much? That’s an entire other post, but the short version is that the first time I went there, I felt so at home. The city spoke to my soul and it’s the same every time I visit. Given the opportunity – and if nothing was in my way financially or visa wise – I would happily live half the year there and half the year in Vancouver. I love it that much.

I also have some really lovely friends in Edinburgh, and staying with them each time has made me feel very local. So while I have done touristy things in Edinburgh, I usually just ‘live’ there and explore while my friends are at work. My Canadian girlfriends didn’t join me in until the second week of this recent trip, so while I had some time to myself during the day, I decided to switch it up and get properly touristy for a few days. But with a bit of a posh and royal spin. I hopped on a royal yacht, toured a fancy townhouse, and had Afternoon Tea with Champagne. Not too shabby.

Here are three places to feel posh in Edinburgh without breaking your budget. (Click to jump to your selection.)

The Royal Yacht Britannia

The Royal Yacht Britannia is your gateway to seeing how the British Royal Family used to travel. Because my friends live right near where the yacht is permanently moored, I have passed by this tourist attraction many times. I’ve even gone into the gift shop in Ocean Terminal (where the ticket office is) to buy postcards. But I’d never taken the time to get a ticket and explore it even though it’s been on my list for years. Shame on me because it’s worth the time to tour the boat and take in the view!

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The Royal Yacht has been rated Scotland’s Best Visitor Attraction for the last decade and there’s no wonder why; quality always shines through. And as magnificent as everything on the deck is (Sun Lounge, State Dining Room, HM the Queen’s Room) below deck is an organized maze that reminds you that it wasn’t just the Royal Family travelling on the boat; there was A LOT of crew and staff living on board. Hence the many bunks, extensive kitchen, many crew rooms, infirmary, and the OG laundry facility. (Which impressed me just as much as the Rolls Royce Phantom 5 on the upper deck.) There’s also a bit of fun sprinkled around the boat with cleverly placed stuffed Yottie bears. Oh, and a beautiful grand piano that made me want to sit down and plunk out the notes to ‘Rule Britannia’ on the sheet music. (I restrained myself.)

The multi-lingual audio tour is included with admission – use it. It is super informative and will prevent you from getting lost.

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The grand-daddy of laundry rooms. Can you spot the Yottie bear?
The Scottish built vessel wasn’t just for official royal travel, but a place for family vacations. Life on the boat was well documented and the photos show even the Queen at her most relaxed.

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HM the Queen with her trusty camera around her neck.
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Royals play board games, too!
Colony Connection: The Royal Yacht visited Canada nine times. There are Canadian artifacts on the Britannia and in the Royal Collection that were gifts from its past visits to my country’s coasts. At the entrance to the exhibit, there is also a very large picture of Princess Diana with her arms wide open while her sons run to her. I was reminded that this photo was taken in Toronto on a visit in 1991. It’s always been one of my favourite royal photos because of the sheer joy on her face at seeing her kids, and I love it, even more, knowing it was snapped in Canada. 

This is now a tick mark on my ‘things to see’ list, but if I were to do this again, I would a) buy some fudge from the shop (I regret not doing this!); and b) go earlier two hours earlier for the first tour of the day. I ended up with a gigantic tour group and it was a bit trying in a confined space. But it was also kind of fun to see how snap-happy they all were. Even more so than me!

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Kiss the Corgie!
My Granny was born in Jamaica when it was still a British colony and she was all about the Royals. She passed away twelve years ago, but I wish I could have shared the experience with her; she would have loved it. And we would have either gone for post-tour tea in Royal Deck Tea Room or taken a stroll back up along the water to Loch Fyne – one of my favourite restaurants in the city.

The Royal Yacht Britannia is located at Ocean Terminal in Edinburgh. It is a stop on Edinburgh Bus Tour’s Majestic Tour, as well as on the Lothian Buses 11, 22 or 35 routes. Pricing varies, but if you’re a student, make sure you show your valid student card for a #GetThrifty discount! Hours, pricing and other information can be found at  http://www.royalyachtbritannia.co.uk/.

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The Georgian House

If you lived in 1790, Edinburgh’s New Town is where you wanted to live, and you probably had major house envy of the Lamont Family in their luxurious masterpiece of a townhouse.

Finery, silver, fabrics; no expense was spared when it was first bought and decorated by Scottish laird John Lamont. It boasts beautiful architecture and all the muted colours and tasteful features of its era. If you want to feel like a well-to-do heroine from a Jane Austen novel (I did), and even if you don’t, it’s absolutely worth a visit. Particularly at a #GetThrifty price of £7.50.

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I do like a chandelier!
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The first stereo system?
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Georgian House chairs have prickly leaves on them to deter anyone sitting on the antiques.
My favourite part of Georgian House was the kitchen with its copper pots and amazing fire spit. I do like a nice kitchen. I can only imagine what the cook had to go through, though, to make dinner for a fancy Georgian dinner party…

Georgian House kitchen - copper pots
Pots for days
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Georgian dinner party setup
After passing through many hands of ownership, the townhouse is now maintained by the National Tust for Scotland. This was one of my three excursions with them and it was quite lovely. It was a rainy day when I went and all I wanted to do was sit by the window and channel my inner Elizabeth Bennett.

The Georgian House is located in Edinburgh’s New Town at 7 Charlotte Square. More information can be found at http://www.nts.org.uk/Visit/Georgian-House/.

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The Dome

My friend Karen was one of the three girls that I was meeting up with for the later weeks of my trip. She moved from Canada to Scotland a couple years ago and we ticked off one of the things on her own ‘things to do’ list by getting posh and having Champagne Afternoon Tea in the Georgian Tea Room at The Dome. If I were an event planner in Edinburgh, I would probably plan many an event in this place. It is spectacular, both inside and out – especially at Christmas time when their electric bill probably skyrockets! I love walking by this building.

Edinburgh used to be known as the ‘Athens of the North’, which The Dome, Calton Hill’s Acropolis, and the Scottish National Gallery all exemplify with their Grecian columns. With The Dome, you’re still marveling at the exterior when the grandeur of the interior taps you on the shoulder and snaps you to attention. It is truly beautiful inside, and this is even before you get into the tea room!

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The Georgian Tea Room is everything you would expect a posh tea room to be: elegant and tasteful with an opulence that only a place like this can get away with. The wait staff is friendly and discreet and the tea selection is varied for all tastes. And then there’s the food. Afternoon Tea is very much a meal, and I will never say no to a scone!

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Afternoon Tea is a bit dear in price in any country, but I’ve always considered it a treat worth splurging on. There is an option to not have any bubbly, which makes things a bit cheaper, but you might as well go for the whole experience. Champagne bubbles are also something I won’t say no to. 😉

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The Dome is a popular venue year round with its four dining areas, so I highly recommend making a reservation. It’s worth the two minutes it will take you to click and get it done, especially if you are going to be there during the holiday season. Christmas in Edinburgh anyone?

The Dome is located at 14 George Street in New Town, Edinburgh. Menus and more information can be found at http://www.thedomeedinburgh.com/.

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What places around the world have you been to where you’ve felt royal or posh? Post in the comments below!

Thank you to the Royal Yacht Britannia and the National Trust for Scotland for hosting me at their respective venues. As always, opinions stated are solely my own.

I always feel that when I come to Edinburgh, in many ways I am coming home.

~ Alan Rickman ~

The Seven Best Places to Hop Off the Bus in Glasgow

In continuing with the cheap, cheerful, and efficient theme of my recent May/June trip with the girls, how does one best explore a city with just a couple days to spare? And without breaking the bank? Like I mentioned in my post about finding Nessie, sometimes you need to hop on a bus. In this case, hopping on and off in the beautiful city of Glasgow.


Small tangent: Scotland was recently announced by RoughGuides.com as the most beautiful country in the world. Glasgow is definitely an urban reason for this accolade with its intricate architecture, green spaces, and dedication to culture. I’ve been rabbiting on about Scotland for years, so I’m so happy that it’s getting this kind of recognition. Canada came in a not too shabby second, but back to Glasgow…

I feel like Glasgow was meant to be a bus tour city because the way it is laid out showcases its’ crown jewels – like the Kelvin Grove Museum and the Necropolis – very proudly and well. On my first visit in 2014, my friend, Heather (a fellow West Coast City Girl, who has been living ex-pat life in Glasgow since university; she fell in love with a Scot, and is now happily settled down with two incredibly adorable children), took me on the City Sightseeing hop-on-hop-off tour. And it was awesome. So when the city offered me the opportunity of taking the tour, I jumped at the chance to do it again.

Aside from Glasgow, I’ve been on hop-on-hop-off bus tours in New York City, Paris, San Diego, and Munich. I’m a fan because they are cheap and cheerful, incredibly informative, and offer the chance to see everything a city has to offer in just a couple hours. I look at it as scratching the surface in order to figure out/confirm where I want to dig deeper. And who doesn’t want to go on a double decker bus with an open top? (This usually makes for better in-transit photos than from a car or a coach tour bus. Glasgow is a mostly rainy city, so the front of the upper level is the best place in that scenario.)

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The Trongate Clock Tower

If you get a tour done first thing in the morning, then you have 24 or 48 hours (depending on your ticket) for hopping off and on to ‘dig’ to your heart’s desire. Most importantly, the #GetThrifty part is that these tours are incredible value for money. The Glasgow tour is only £15.00 ($20.00-ish) for the two-day ticket. The one-day is £14.00, so you might as well pay the extra pound.

WHERE TO HOP OFF – MY SEVEN FAVOURITE GLASGOW STOPS

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Me and the girls at George Square

George Square (Stop 1 or 7)

This beautiful square is where the tour starts and ends, and is the starting point to many highlights that are just a short walk away:

  • The Equestrian Statue of the Duke of Wellington – He has a traffic cone on his head and it’s amazing. The people of Glasgow are a very friendly and cheeky bunch.
  • The Gallery of Modern Art – The backdrop for the Duke of Wellington in his traffic cone glory, this is still on my list of places to visit, but I’m told it’s amazing.
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Equestrian Statue of the Duke of Wellington (Photo from my 2014 trip.)
  • The Counting House – Owned by the Wetherspoon’s restaurant group, this used to be a bank; hence, the name. We had an excellent girls’ night here, but it’s also a good spot to fuel-up before or after your tour. I hear they also serve a top notch Sunday brunch.  (Yes, Wetherspoon’s is a chain, but their venues are always unique and they have nailed down the trifecta of how to make their food and beverage affordable, of quality, and with good service.)
  • Shopping on Buchanan Street – From cheap and cheerful to high end, you’ll find what you want/need here.
  • The Lighthouse – My new favourite museum. This very cool spot used to be the Glasgow Herald office and was designed by a favourite son of the city: Charles Rennie Mackintosh . Tucked away in an alley off of Buchanan Street, it is now the architecture and design centre, and offers a spectacular view of the city once you’ve climbed the many, many stairs of the spiral staircase. End your visit with a tea and pastry in the Doocot Cafe.
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View from the top of The Lighthouse
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So many stairs……

Glasgow Cathedral / Glasgow Necropolis (Stop 2)

Glasgow Cathedral is incredibly beautiful. I am not a religious person by any means, but I really love the majesty and artistry of cathedrals. This one is no exception. The stained glass panels are beautiful and it’s really just a peaceful place to be in. Entrance is free and they offer guided tours. Oh, and if you’re an Outlander fan, this is where they filmed the Hôpital des Anges scenes for Season 2. (Going back to George Square, that is where they filmed Frank proposing to Claire for Season 1. I’m a fan. Can you tell?)

The Necropolis is the Victorian garden cemetery attached to the cathedral. The offer walking tours and the headstones and such are quite impressive. If you are interested in WWI history, there is a heritage trail (also researchable online) that honours those who fought bravely in battle.

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Stained glass at Glasgow Cathedral
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Admiring the tiles in Glasgow Cathedral
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The Glasgow Necropolis

The People’s Palace and Doulton Fountain on Glasgow Green (Stop 5)

Glasgow Green is the oldest park in Glasgow. It is BEAUTIFUL and incredibly impressive. I would have loved to just go sit and have a picnic, but we didn’t have time. The People’s Palace gets more of an honourable mention because we, of course, got off the bus just after it closed. Sigh. But it’s supposed to quite a good museum and is on the list for next time.

What we did get to see was the spectacular Doulton Fountain out front of the museum building.  I could have taken pictures of that thing all day; there is so much detail! And a little piece of Canada. And if you end your tour there, you can take a short walk to the WEST Brewery for a flight or a pint and some tasty German inspired food.

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The late 19th-century depiction of Canada is still pretty accurate today. except now we would add a hockey stick!
3. Doulton Fountain in Glasgow Green
Photo op goal (Image courtesy of the Glasgow City Marketing Bureau)

Riverside Museum (Stop 12)

This is the museum of transport and not only focuses on the history and displays its impressive collection of planes, trains, and automobiles (and bikes); it also shines a spotlight on the maritime activities of the city. Aptly so, as the museum is a showstopper in itself with its location on the River Clyde. On your way here, you will see some modern architectural additions to the city, including the Squinty Bridge and the SEC Armadillo.

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The Clutha Bar mural en route to the Riverside Museum
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The Clyde Arc Bridge (or as the locals call it, the Squinty Bridge)
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The SEC Armadillo Auditorium
8. Riverside Museum. Credit Culture and Sport Glasgow (Museums)
The Riverside Museum (Image: The Glasgow City Marketing Bureau)

Kelvin Grove Art Gallery and Museum (Stop 13 or 16)

This is one of my favourite museums in the world. There’s a little bit of everything for everyone in this beautiful building. The building in itself very impressive, but my favourite exhibits are the Charles Rennie Mackintosh showcase, the natural history area (where there is a beautiful BC Coast Salish totem pole), the Floating Heads installation (which should be creepy, but it’s very oddly not), and the very impressive collection of Scottish, French Impressionist and Old Dutch Master paintings. They also have the incredible showpiece that is Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross.

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Floating Heads by Sophy Cave
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The Coast Salish totem pole at Kelvin Grove Art Gallery and Museum. I love seeing little pieces of home around the world!

Ashton Lane (Stop 14 or 15)

Located right near the University of Glasgow (and its really stunning campus) in the West End of the city, Ashton Lane is an excellent place to end up for post-tour dinner and drinks. I suggest hopping off the bus at Stop 14 and taking the time to enjoy a stroll through the campus to get there – rain or shine. It’s a really pretty spot, particularly in the autumn – I wish I could see the leaves turning red this year!

The Ashton Lane cobblestone walkway is lined with fairy lights guiding the way to your eating or drinking establishment of choice. It reminds me of a foodie Diagon Alley. Price point varies depending on the place you choose,  but, likely due to proximity to the university, there are quite a few reasonable options. My current favourite, Ubiquitous Chip (or ‘the Chip) is a bit more on the pricey end, but they have a solid prix fixe menu (always an excellent #GetThrifty option) and some lovely, lovely cocktails.

Ashton Lane can get a bit crowded and busy, but there are plenty of nearby options if you want to just visit the lane for a pre-dinner drink. My picks are the Hillhead Book Club with its ‘good honest food at good honest prices’ menu (that features some excellent vegetarian options) and the glowing moose head on the wall; and Òran Mór with its variety and great venue (which I believe used to be a church).

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Ashton Lane and the Ubiquitous Chip

Glasgow Botanic Gardens (Stop 15)

Also located in the West End of Glasgow, the Botanic Gardens are a lovely way to chill out and have a wander. It’s free to walk about, even in the glasshouses, and there is a tearoom should you wish to have afternoon tea. They also do free guided tours in the summer, but you can also take a virtual tour here. With both the location of our hotel being right around the corner and the weather being blessedly nice, I spent a peaceful early morning on my yoga mat surrounded by all the greenery. It was fabulous and I made a new friend.

20. Botanic Gardens
The Glasgow Botanic Gardens (Image courtesy of the Glasgow City Marketing Bureau)
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Made a new friend during meditation on the bench!

Prior to my first visit to Glasgow, the only things I had heard were that it was a blue collar college party town and that the Glaswegian accent was virtually impossible to understand. All true, with the latter depending on how late in the evening it is. But as you can see, it’s way more than that. It’s ornate architecture, beautiful parks, world-class museums and galleries, and fab restaurants. All things that I found out from research and visiting, but the stereotypes definitely undersell the city.

The Glasgow City Sightseeing hop-on-hop-off tour starts at George Square and has 21 stops. It takes a couple hours to do a full loop without any hop-offs, but I do suggest doing this first so you can see everything this fabulous city has to offer.

#GetThrifty Tips:

  • Most of the galleries and museums in Glasgow are FREE. (Special exhibits are the exclusions for the free spots.)
  • The one-day ticket is £14.00, but the two-day is only £1 more, so unless you’re truly just there for the day, snag that two-day option!
  • Your bus tour ticket also entitles you to a discount on the subway system, as well as a 20% discount at the Glasgow Science Centre.
  • Prix fixe menus are your friend!
  • Students get a discount on their bus tour tickets.

 

Have you been to Glasgow? What are your favourite parts of the city?

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A big thank you to the Glasgow City Marketing Bureau for making this post possible. Some images are courtesy of the city and are credited accordingly. As always, all opinions are my own.

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Glasgow’s really friendly, with this impressive mix of real solidarity and identity that’s very personal.

~ George MacKay ~

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The Best Places to Eat and Drink in Soho with Eating London Tours

Before I left for my trip in May, I was quizzing my expat colleagues about where the girls and I should eat and drink for our three nights in London. They all recommended one place: Soho. Though I’ve been to London many times, it was an area that, aside from the theatres, I had no paid much attention to. Having now explored a bit, I can safely say shame on me.

Located in the West End of London, Soho is London’s nightlife hot spot. It has morphed, chameleon-like over the decades, from being the place to find certain company and activities (you know what I mean), to the hub of the rag trade and mod 60’s culture, to music central, and where one goes to the theatre. Plus a few things in between. With the 21st century came the hipsters and a culinary rejuvenation. Mixed with trendy shops, theatres, and a few cheeky reminders of the area’s more notorious history, Soho is now a multicultural foodie paradise.

With that, where to start?? So many restaurants and bars tucked into the nooks and alleyways make the decision of where to eat, and where to find the best gin and tonic (important!) a bit of a challenge. (Particularly when on a budget in a country whose currency is whooping yours’ behind.) That’s where Eating London Tours comes in with their Twilight Soho Food & Cocktails Tour.

The Basics

  • Walking tour through Soho
  • Six restaurants/bars
  • Sizable appetizer servings and beverages at each stop
  • Amazing tour guide to walk you through Soho’s history and current culture
  • 3-4 hours of fun!

The Breakdown

The tour starts outside the Palace Theatre, where you can look on with envy at those picking up their Harry Potter tickets. We were a mixed group of Canadian, Aussie, Irish, and Russian nationals, which was a reminder that wherever you’re from in the world, food is a universal language. ❤️

Our tour guide, Ashleigh, was fabulous. Her enthusiasm for food and sharing the history of the area was incredibly contagious. Not that we weren’t excited to be there, but having a happy and engaging tour guide is always a bonus!

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The Spirit of Soho Mural
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Our fabulous tor guide.

1. LA BODEGA NEGRA

(Website / 16 Moor Street, Soho)

Located in what used to be a peep show shop, our first stop was La Bodega Negra, for some traditional Mexican tacos and margaritas. Mexican food in London? Si. Good Mexican food. My love for cooking started in Mexico, so I’m picky, but I was very impressed.

A play on fish and chips and mushy peas was served in the traditional house-made tacos and made for a zippy spin on some British favourites. Frozen strawberry margaritas were on the menu for our group, but as I’m allergic to strawberries, I ended up with a lime margarita on the rocks. If you know me, you know this made me the happiest camper.

The girls and I ended up back at La Bodega Negra the next night after going to the theatre, and it was hopping. No lineup, but full and boisterous with a really great party vibe. The margaritas are a bit pricey for the size, but for the multiple kinds of tequila that they use, it’s worth it. On point tequila to lime ratio.

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Margarita on the rocks.
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La Bodega Negra starts out quiet but turns in to a lively place later in the evening.
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Fish & Chips Taco, Mushy Peas Taco

2. THE LONDON GIN CLUB

(Website / 22 Great Chapel St.)

Next stop was The Gin Club at The Star. The building used to be a 1930’s cocktail bar and is now a family run establishment where, Julia, the owner, makes the in-house gin. And it’s fabulous. One of my friends, Alison, is all about a G&T. So this was her jam.

We were brought down a staircase to a tube station like room and served gin infused beef pie (yum!) while we were taught how to properly pour and enjoy a gin and tonic. (The bowl of the glass should be larger in order to better smell and taste the gin, and – because it’s all about flavour preference – your tonic should be poured by YOU. Not the bartender. So 90% of bars outside of the UK are doing this wrong. Huh.) Next time I’m in London, I plan on going back so I can do a proper tasting flight and make a very small dent in the 360(!) kinds of gin they have available.

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Not sure about you, but I’m going left.
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Alison found her happy place!
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Gin and tonic with gin-infused beef pie.

3. ENRIQUE TOMAS

(Website / 132 Wardour Street)

This was hands down my favourite stop of the tour. More a shop than a restaurant, Enrique Tomás is essentially the reason I won’t ever be a vegetarian or vegan. I really and truly enjoy pork products and I am not ashamed to admit it. Prosciutto makes my mouth water. And now I’m crushing on its Spanish cousin, jamón, with its melt in your mouth amazing goodness.

We were sat at the large table near the back of the shop, with a placemat illustrating the different kinds of jamón, and how and where it gets raised. Lovely Spanish red wine was poured to go with the ham and manchego cheese all strategically placed on our plates, and a very shy, but passionate employee guided us through our delicious tasting journey. It was an unexpected prep session for the upcoming Barcelona leg of our trip and I could have stayed there and eaten for the rest of the evening.

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Expensive and tasty Jamón Ibérico.
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Vino, jamón, manchego. All set!

4. PIX PINTXOS

(Website / 16 Bateman St.)

Feeling incredibly happy, we were ushered by Ashleigh to Pix Bar, where we continued the Spanish theme of things. With four locations in London, Pix Bar is where you want to go to get your tapas, or pintxos fix. (Pintxos are Basque snacks skewered with wooden sticks. This knowledge was filed away for Barcelona and came very handy.) The Soho location is great for people watching and it frequented by a lot of media. If you’re up for a bit of mischief, there’s a cocktail bar in the basement called Rooms by the Hour. Which, P.S., used to be a 1970’s adult cinema. (In case you missed it, Soho has a past. Ha.)

The tour includes two pintxos skewers. Make sure you scope it all out, like a buffet, before you choose. Because there’s a lot to select from to go with the fabulous white wine they serve you, called Txakoli. As far as white wines go, Txakoli is very dry and has a subtle sparkle to it. It’s served with great fanfare, poured from a height, with no spills. Tom Cruise has nothing on these bartenders.

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Pintxos
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Pintxos and salad.
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Txakoli wine pouring. No spills!

5. OPIUM

(Website / The Jade Door, 15-16 Gerrard St.)

Next stop was Opium, in what we found out is Europe’s largest Chinatown. It’s technically not part of Soho, but I’m so glad that it was on this tour. Opium is located behind a jade coloured door with a very polite bouncer standing guard. Styled like a Shanghai opium den, there are three floors and multiple rooms. Be prepared to climb some stairs. I promise it’s worth the climb.

We were treated to a Chinese tea cocktail and incredibly tasty dim sum. The cocktail reminded me of a more exciting version of kombucha. Be careful, it’s easy to drink. Chinese tradition is that you don’t ever pour your own drink. Your cup will be refilled, a lot.

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Chinese tea and dim sum
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Chinatown

6. BASEMENT SATE

(Website / 8 Broadwick St.)

The last stop on our tour, Basement Sate is a blink and you’ll miss it gem with an unmarked door and a very discreet plaque. We got to the top of the stairs and the first thing one of my friends said was “I don’t want to leave”. I concurred. We hadn’t even sat down yet. But that’s the reaction this very Manhatten like cocktail and dessert bar will elicit from most. Yes, cocktails AND desserts.

One sparkly cocktail and an incredible hazelnut treat later, we asked Ashleigh if there was any way we could stay. The tour needs to end in a certain spot, but she made our little quartet a reservation to come back a bit later. We went back and it felt like we were on a girls’ night out in an episode of Sex and the City. Basement Sate is on point. I recommend the Notting Hill.

Life and work have made it so we don’t get to see each other very often, so I really loved getting to be out on the town having fancy G&T’s with three of my best friends.

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Hazelnut perfection
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The Notting Hill G&T

This tour was a fantastic introduction to Soho’s restaurant and bar scene and was great value for money. It’s definitely the most budget friendly way to experience a cool area of an expensive city. If you think about it, on a girls’ night out, you might take turns buying rounds, but that adds up. Especially when you include food and gratuity (usually added on to the bill for you by the establishment you are in).

In addition to Soho, Eating London also has Brick Lane (Indian food) and East End (comfort food) options in London. Eating Europe also has tours in Rome, Florence, Amsterdam, and Prague. You can tell they have worked to cultivate relationships with their restaurant partners and everything is top notch. I highly recommend checking them out.

Make sure you wear your walking shoes and, if you’re in London, have an umbrella. Enjoy!

#GetThrifty – The lovely Ashleigh gave us a 10% discount code to use for future tours, and I’m so happy to share with you. Visit Eating London’s website and enter ASHLEIGH when at the payment page to get the discount. Every penny helps!

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This London food tour was made possible in part by Eating Europe Tours. As always, all opinions are my own.

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People who love to eat are always the best people.

~ Julia Child ~

Island Road Trip – My Top 8 Things to Do in Victoria

It’s been a busy few weeks, but I’ve finally had a chance to go through photos and do a road trip download from my notes.

The Island is a perfect place for a road trip, and the Brit and I celebrated his birthday with four-and-a-half days of exploring. (As my calling him “The Brit” would suggest, he isn’t from here, so I love visiting places with him that I haven’t been to in a long time. It gives me a fresh lens.)

We started in Victoria and, from there, focused our attention on the eastern side of the Island. (The west side and the crazy all-season surfing people will have to be for another time!) Though we were only in Victoria for about 36 hours, we got a lot in. Here is my Victoria Top 8:

My Top 8 Things to Do in Victoria

1. Fuel-Up 
There is a wonderful place called Roost Farm Centre; about 10 minutes drive from Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal. It is in North Saanich, not in Victoria proper, but it was my favourite place that we ate at while we were on the Island. Farm, winery, bakery, bistro. Everything is made on-site from food grown and raised on their acreage. So good. Check out my post on Roost Farm Centre, here. For other restaurant suggestions in Victoria, click here.

2. B&B It
I’m a huge fan of bed and breakfasts. Particularly if they are run by nice people in lovely, heritage homes that have been well maintained (and serve a tasty breakfast). a) You get breakfast (win!); b) You’re not staying in a cut and dry hotel; and c) Good price point and warm customer service. We stayed at Fisher House Bed and Breakfast in the James Bay neighbourhood, and would absolutely stay again. Check out some of the best Victoria B&Bs here.

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The Deluxe Florence Suite at Fisher House Bed and Breakfast.

Get Thrifty: Travel websites like Expedia and Red Tag will often have the best rates available for accommodations. Trip Advisor is a great site for price comparisons and reviews. 

3. Get Political
Victoria is British Columbia’s capital city and home to our BEAUTIFUL Legislative Assembly building. They offer free (yes!) public tours on non-sitting days, but we didn’t have time to catch one. I remember walking through during a school field trip, and recognising, even when I was 12, that the architecture is amazing. The building still had white Christmas lights up (which I believe is a year-round thing?), which made for a nice evening walk and some pretty pictures.

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The Legislative Assembly, by night.

4. Get Your Step On
Everywhere. Victoria is a great place to give your Fitbit a workout. They have a good transit system, but you don’t need it downtown. Particularly on a nice day. Our B&B was a ten-minute walk away from the Legislature and the walk along Inner Harbour is a treat. Google Maps is your friend. Figure out what you want to do and map it out with sustenance pit stops.IMG_2795

5. Hop Along
Victoria has a thriving craft beer scene and is the home of Driftwood and Spinnaker’s, to name a couple. The city also recently had their annual beer week. We were a couple weeks early for that, so we did our own little tour, but you can also do a set tour. The spots we visited were:

  • Canoe Brewpub – Located on the edge of Chinatown, Canoe has a spectacular waterfront view from a fabulous patio that I can only imagine is always full up in the summer. Enjoy the canoes and chandeliers hung from the high wood beam ceiling over a flight of beer – the best way to try a mix of their core and seasonal brews. Our waiter also gave us a behind the scenes tour when he found out The Brit has been homebrewing his own IPA.
  • Phillips Brewing and Malting Co. – Get your growler on at this place. They do brisk refill business and have a very large selection of beers. They are well known for their Blue Buck Ale and name all their beers in a rather quirky fashion. (Electric Unicorn, anyone?) Their Ginger Beer and Longboat Chocolate Porter were my favourites to taste.
  • Moon Brewery and Pub – This was a recommendation from our waiter at Canoe. It’s a bit of a walk, but definitely worth it. The Dark Side of the Moon Oatmeal Stout is tasty, and Fridays apparently involve Music Bingo, so two solid reasons to go back.
  • The Churchill – Not a brewery, but this Government Street gem was a Google Map search find and I recommend it as a place to visit if you don’t have time to hit any breweries. The chalkboard beer menu has about 35, mostly local, selections and the beer tap setup is pretty neat. Sit at the bar if you can.
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The Churchill does not lack in selection.

Get Thrifty: A flight is the best, most cost-effective way to taste several beers (and makes for less of a fuzzy walk home!) 

6. Museum It Up
Victoria is home to the Maritime and Aviation museums, as well as Emily Carr House and others that you can find listed here, but if you’re staying in the downtown core, or are pressed for time, my picks are:

  • Royal BC Museum – Learn about BC’s history, our First Nations culture in the First Peoples Gallery, and whatever special exhibit is up for the season. The woolly mammoth is pretty spectacular, and the IMAX theatre has a variety of short documentaries throughout the day. They also show Hollywood features in the evening. The yearly pass is a wicked deal!
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Royal BC Museum First Peoples Gallery
  • The Miniatures Museum – I was just as delighted as when I was a kid when I walked back into this place. The craftsmanship of the miniatures is amazing and very clever; particularly the little puffs of smoke coming from the tiny guns. The wording of the voiceovers for the different exhibits is a bit dated, but this is a great museum to visit. Be sure to check out the King Arthur and the Canada railway exhibits.
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This was my favourite miniatures scene. Romance with grandpa in the background with his shotgun. Just in case.

Get Thrifty: Museums will sometimes do Groupon type offer. If you have a student card, use it. Every penny counts! Also, see my wildcard #9, below.

7. Lift Your Pinky Finger 
THE most touristy (and let’s face it, the most fun) thing to do in Victoria is to have afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel. Having already had this experience a couple times, I didn’t subject the Brit to a tradition of his own land – to his great relief. But it’s a wonderful way to spend the afternoon and a nice splurge. Most definitely make a reservation.

8. Stop and Smell the Roses 
Victoria is known as “The Garden City”. There is no shortage of foliage and colour, no matter the season. And then there’s the big mama of them all, Butchart Gardens. While we didn’t have the opportunity this go-round for a stroll through their beautiful grounds, it’s on the list for next time. You can also have afternoon or high tea in their fabulous dining room, and when you randomly stumble upon it, like I did a few years ago, pose on the pretty carousel horse statue. Because, why not?

And a wild card #9:

9. Be a Victoria VIP 
Though Victoria doesn’t have a year-round city pass like some bigger cities do, Attractions Victoria puts on an annual Be a Tourist in Your Own Hometown weekend in February. You can buy a very reasonably priced VIP pass and get free(!) or discounted access to most of the major attractions in the Victoria area for the weekend. We were, of course, a weekend too early for this, but I love the concept of encouraging locals to rediscover their city alongside the tourists. It’s the perfect way to get thrifty.

Just living is not enough… one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.

~ Hans Christian Andersen

Island Road Trip – Roost Farm Centre 

ROOST FARM CENTRE (9100 East Saanich Rd., North Saanich, BC)

A couple weekends ago, the Brit and I hopped on a ferry for a mini birthday (his) holiday on Vancouver Island. As with most of my travels anywhere in the world, there was a mechanical delay. (Surprise!) Silver lining: we got to capture the sunset at the beginning of the eventual boat ride and spend the rest of the journey inside (read: warm), planning our activities for the next day.

The delay made us very late for our dinner reservation (we got there 30 min before closing – see note below), but that leads me to my recommended start to a trip to Victoria: Roost Farm Centre.

A recommendation from one of my executives at work, Roost is a gem. Located on 10-acre farm located 10 minutes from Swartz Bay and right next to the airport, it is bistro, bakery, and winery. With a focus on keeping it local and sustainability, Roost takes “farm to table” to another level. Everything is made on site; mostly from ingredients grown or raised on the property. Absolutely my kind of place.

When you walk in, it’s enormous and cosy all at once. Yes, a barn can be cosy. Red checked table cloths, mason jar vases, and poultry-themed artwork displayed everywhere.  You won’t run afowl. Ha. Sorry.

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Speaking of chicken, my Maman makes an excellent roast chicken, but I’m not afraid to say that the meat in the  Chicken Curry I ordered edged hers out (by a small margin). The Brit had the BBQ Chicken Pizza, and same deal. Super tasty.

Wine wise, they make a lovely red, but they don’t sell it bottled. Which is a shame, because, again, lovely. But they do sell their other varietals.

Our waitress was incredibly nice and when she saw how crestfallen I looked at not being able to buy a bottle of the red, we were given a taster of their The Laird’s Ginger Sweetheart. I don’t like dessert wine. But apparently, I like it when it’s made with Siegerrebe (see-geh-RAY-buh – took me while…) grapes and a hefty dose of ginger. My sips made me wish for apple pie and vanilla ice cream. So, naturally, I bought a bottle. 

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We went back to the Mainland via Departure Bay, but next time we take the ferry over, Roost will be visited in the daylight. (Roost makes all of their bread and pastries from their own wheat. Hello, fresh bread.)

Note: We discovered that many places on the Island close early, even in the city. This is one of them. Roost closes at 8pm M-F and 9pm Sat/Sun. 

More Island road trip posts coming soon!

If you are killing a chicken and cooking a chicken, it has to taste like chicken. Veal has to taste like veal. You have to be able to identify what you’re eating. One of my worst experiences is when I can’t tell what I’m eating. It is a waste.

~Joel Robuchon~

Happy 2017 & goals for the year

It’s New Years’ Eve and I’ve just finished making Oatmeal Honey Chocolate Chip cookies for a party later this evening. I’m in rainy San Diego (so strange to say that it’s raining in Southern California…), and I’m happy to be spending the last day of 2016 with a friend very near and dear to my heart and his equally dear partner (the batter thief below) in a place that I’ve wanted to visit for a long time.

While California isn’t “home”, I think that home is a feeling that comes with who you are with (or on your own) and what you do to be comfortable where you are. I’m always with people I care about on NYE and I tend to bake or cook because I love the smells and the act of making something that will be shared. They remind me of my mum doing her thing in the kitchen, and it makes me feel, well, at home.

As always, goals for the year:

  • PATIENCE – I find it frustrating that I (mostly) have patience for days with others but not with myself. It’s okay if things get messy. It’s about how you clean up.
  • TRAVEL – Always.
  • FINANCE – Get myself completely debt free ahead of schedule. Save, save, save.
  • COMPLETION – Finish my 500 yoga teaching certification,  and a couple projects I’ve been working on for a while now. Read: Stop procrastinating.
  • MEDITATION – 11 minutes. Every day. No excuses.
  • AUDACITY & KINDNESS – I’ve been fortunate to hear Olympian, and fellow Canadian, Silken Laumann, speak on a few occasions. She talks about being audacious and not being afraid go for it. She is also one of the kindest people I have ever met and I admire her spirit and the way she lives her life.

Wherever you are, whatever you are doing for NYE, I hope you’re warm and with good people. I hope your wishes came true in a year that was a little weird, and that 2017 is a year that is even better. I wish you audacity and kindness. Be safe, have fun, share joy.

Happy New Year! xoxo

You can get excited about the future. The past won’t mind.

~ Hillary DePiano ~