Friday Round Up: Boston, Instagrammed.

This may be completely contradictory to my travel woes post on Monday, but, I’m doing it anyways.  Why?  Because it’s my blog and I can 🙂  Isn’t that the beauty of blogging?  We can write whatever we want, whenever we want and even have spelling errors and it’s fine.  Free speech at it’s finest.  Why else?  This was one of those travel high weeks for me.  Those do happen.  Yes, traveling for work can be fun and not so sweaty and awful as I noted in the aforementioned post.  So let’s get to it.  I have an office in Boston and therefore travel to the great beantown once every 6-8 weeks, give or take.  I have been to Boston so many times and always enjoy it but this time it was that. much. better.  Why?  Let me show you through Instagram!  And to oversimplify, if you travel to Boston, here are 5 recommendations for your next trip.

  1. Stay at W Boston.  It’s a little off the beaten path, but 100% worth it.  Amazing design, delicious food, incredible rooms and most importantly, top-notch service and staff (just check out the hand-written note from the Director of Operations below as a little surprise and delight).  #whotels
  2. Eat at Neptune Oyster.  This is my all-time favorite restaurant in the world (yes, in the world).  Get oysters.  Then get the steamed clams.  Then end with a lobster roll, with butter.  Wash it down with a glass of their Sancerre (ask for it, it’s not on the menu). You will thank me later.
  3. Shop at Acquire.  It’s a boutique in the North End that has everything from super unique jewelry, hostess gifts, well-designed pillows, books, candles, etc.  It was a design dream for me.  Hopefully Mike will be working.  He’s awesome.
  4. Pamper at Bliss.  Whether it’s a quick hot-cream manicure or a full spa day, Bliss continues to be the best spa around, in my humble opinion.  I squeezed in a manicure at 8:30pm with Nancy and she rocked.  It’s wicked ‘spa-some,’ as they say at Bliss 🙂
  5. Eat at Douzo Sushi.  Located in the Back Bay area and introduced to me by my dear friend Alex, this sushi spot is not to be missed.  I have tried a bunch of things and would recommend it all.  But, most importantly, get salmon and tuna nigiri.

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Friday Feature: Florence, Italy

ann-ueno-florence-italyFlorence.  One of the most touristy cities of Italy, but completely warranted and understandably so.  Holding the capital title in Tuscany and considered the birthplace of The Renaissance,  Florence is rich in history and is deemed one of the most beautiful cities in the world by Forbes.  I wholeheartedly agree.  And you will too if you go or if you have been.  Many people asked me what day trips I would take from Florence.  None.  I actually think there is so much to see and do in Florence that I would wonder why anyone would want to leave the city for the day.

Tiny, cobblestone streets that barely fit a Mini Cooper yet are jammed with people, bikes, outdoor cafes and Vespas zipping by.  Food that is what you imagine and hope Italian food to be.  Fresh pastas covered lightly in olive oil, tomatoes and basil.  Steak Florentine that would potentially convert a vegetarian.  Creamy, dark chocolate and pistachio flavored gelato that you dream about over and over again.  A city you can walk and walk and bump into leather markets and farmers markets and piazzas and pizzerias.  Shoe boutiques, paperies, clothing stores. Florence is one of the reasons I love Italy so much and when I come back, Florence will be one of my stops.  Until then, let me take you through a few highlights of our time in Firenze!

The hotel.  We had booked three nights at the Hotel Brunellleschi and upon arrival, they were oversold and had to send us to The Grand Hotel Villa Cora, a five-star resort about 10 minutes from the city center of Florence by car.  Disappointed we were.  Until we arrived.  It was a beautiful oasis you only see in the movies.  Seriously.  The design of this mansion had me running around shooting every possible 19th century chair and landscape I possibly could.  If you are looking for an upscale hotel stay, want to splurge and be a bit away from the hustle and bustle of Florence (especially during peak season where there are so many tourists everywhere!), I would highly recommend this hotel.

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The food.  Yes, I know, really surprising that I blog about the Italian food from our travel.s

  1.   Le Pool Bistrot at The Grand Hotel Villa Cora.  The first night we were there, we didn’t want to leave the property as it was so wonderful.  And the menu here looked creative and unique so we went for it.  I wouldn’t recommend making a trip to this restaurant, but, if you are staying at the hotel, definitely experience it.  It was worth it!
  2. We had a quick drink and aperitif at The Golden View Open Bar which overlooks The Ponte Vecchio bridge and offers really nice views, especially at sunset.  Slightly touristy, but I would recommend it for a drink before dinner.
  3. We experienced two really traditional Osteria’s of which both I would recommend.  Boccanegra and Osteria Cipolla Rossa.  Go and go.
  4. For lunches, we honestly stumbled into places and of course, every single place was amazing.  Do the same.
  5. Last, I LOVED the gelato at a gelateria called Bellamia.  But, I won’t say it was the best that Italy has to offer.  Why?  Because in my experience, every single serving of the ice-cold creamed yuminess was amazing.  This one just stood out for me.

Shopping.  I did the most damage here.  The shoe outlet store by Hotel Brunelleschi (we ended up there for our last night). The leather market where I became friends with Lorenzo and plunged into love for a black, form-fitting leather jacket.  The jewelry store near the train station.  The paperies.  The markets on the Piazza Repubblica.  The list goes on.  As does my credit card bill.

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The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, the main church of Florence.  You will most often hear it be called Il Duomo.  Seeing this amazing church 15 years ago was breathtaking.  And it was as breathtaking, if not more, today.  It’s one of the main tourist attractions in Florence and you honestly see it from almost every single place you are walking, eating, sitting, shopping.  I personally think the outside is more beautiful than the inside.  However, I still recommend doing the tour inside.  And this time, inside, I lit a candle.  I lit a candle and stopped and released all thoughts into a few quiet moments in this beautiful church.  I stopped to pray for the women in my bible study.  That they would all experience becoming mothers to healthy babies.  And I prayed for all women out there that have struggled with loss and confusion and pain while trying to have a baby.  I will always remember Il Duomo in Florence for that very moment.

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Last, I just am in love with the beauty of Florence.  At every single turn, there is a moment, a plate of food, a historical element that must be captured with the lens.  It’s filled with the lovely sound of Italian voices and the smells of the most delicious pizza and pasta you will eat.  Ahhh, Florence.  Thank you for your hospitality, for making my jeans a bit tighter and my smile a little wider.

{Photography Credit: All images in this post are my own.  Please give credit where credit is deserved 🙂  Grazie!}

Travel Stories: Highlights of Rome

It seems like Rome was months ago at this point of our travels throughout Italy.  However, it was just over a week ago that we checked into our hotel, dropped our bags, exhausted, and jetted out to not miss a thing Rome had to offer.  The juxtaposition of Rome is absolutely incredible: Rich history amidst an urban chic metropolis.  Spanish Steps just a few meters from a Chanel store.  Roman ruins standing next to 19th century homes.  Pope Francis and young Italian children.  Wine from 1990, Prosecco from 2010.  The tourists sprinkled among the locals.  Tiny smart cars, huge tour buses.  The romance and slower pace of Rome at night, the energy of Rome during the day.  It’s truly a remarkable city and one that I want to share my personal travel stories, the moments or people or things that stood out for me, for Rick, for us.

It comes as no coincidence that our first night in Rome was introduced with a rich tradition featuring a glass of champagne.  We stayed at the St. Regis and every night at 7 p.m., there is a tradition in the lobby where a server opens a bottle of crisp, delicious Perrier-Jouet Champagne with a sword.  Yes, a sword. They deem this moment the opening of the night, appropriately named open the bottle, open the night.  And a perfect way to open our vacation.  And perhaps a great concept to bring back to the Ueno home for our upcoming parties 🙂

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I would say that on almost every single trip I have taken in my life, the people I meet on my journey are what turns travel into a unique, memorable experience.  And this time, it is no different.  From our lovely tour-guide-turned-friend, Damiana (and her amazing husband, Luigi) to the man who sliced me the best piece of Prosciutto, to Ivana and her husband chatting with Rick and I about life and work and travel, I feel very blessed to have gotten to experience Rome from a local lens, making my trip that much richer.

The fresh food.  Ahhhh!  The fresh, melt-in-your-mouth food. I now 100% understand and appreciate why anyone wants to eat local, wants to eat organic.  There is an immense difference in the flavors and freshness of the foods in Italy and being a foodie, you can imagine how my stomach smiled with each bite, with each meal.  From the thin crust tomato and basil pizza to the sweet and slightly thick balsamic vinegar to the peppery arugula greens and the creamy dark chocolate gelato, eating the food in Italy is truly a bucket list experience and one that I look forward to checking off my bucket list again and again.

And speaking of food, I have to say that coming from Chicago, where there is always a healthy argument between which is better, deep dish or thin crust pizza, I was excited to not only eat the thin crust pizza in Rome, but to eat “fast food” pizza.  It’s like their coffee bars.  You stand, you order, they hand you a pizza that is folded in half like a red sauce, buttery crust and mozzarella sandwich, and you stand and eat it.  It was just what the doctor ordered and just what Rick and I did after a long morning of touring.  I may be on team thin crust now.  But don’t tell anyone from Chicago I said that.

IMG_2257While there are hundreds of sights to see in Rome there is one sight in Rome that I loved the first time I had seen it 15 years ago and I loved it even more this time: The Colosseum.  Considered one of the greatest works of Roman architecture with construction starting in 70 AD, the Colosseum was an amphitheatre, a place where the Romans would go for entertainment.  I think this is one reason I love this historic concrete and stone landmark so much.  And for me, I am immensely attracted to the exterior design of it.  The symmetry.  The arches.  The textured, gray and tan and ivory stones.  The circular shape.  The way the sun makes its mark on it during the day.  The way the golden lights shine through at night. Created for entertainment.  And admired by many. Imagine having an event there now!

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Another highlight was the streets of Rome.  Given it’s a walking city with much to do, Rick and I spent hours and hours hitting the pavement, taking pictures, soaking in the culture, appreciating all that happens on the streets.  Not only are they beautiful with their slim, grayish cobblestones,  but they are global, they are colorful, they are energetic and they are filled with life, literally.  From the outdoor cafes, to the rich historic landmarks, the streets of Rome will forever be implanted on my heart.

The wine.  Enough said.

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And my second favorite drink of choice in Rome (ahem, in probably the whole word), coffee.  Or in Italy, espresso.  Or if I want to sip a bit longer, a Cafe Americano.  It was fun to experience a true Italian bar where nothing is to-go, everything is served in glassware and it’s fast, furious and delicious.  And one thing I learned is that you are supposed to let the espresso flavors sit in your mouth for at least two hours.  Don’t chew gum.  Don’t brush your teeth.  Don’t wash it down with anything else.  Savor the flavor.

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Last, but not least, one of the absolute highlights of Rome was experiencing it with the love of my life 🙂

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Birthday Highlight #2: Weekend in San Diego

IMG_3620It is becoming a tradition that for my birthday, Rick and I get out of dodge, as my best friend Eileen likes to say.  As I get older, travel and experiential “gifts” are becoming more and more important to me so any chance I have, I will jump on an AA Boeing 737. And since my birthday falls right around the time in Chicago where we’ve all had more than enough of the snow, 30 degree temperatures and gloomy days, San Diego was a more-than-ideal destination to escape that madness.  Plus, we have some great Starwood hotels there, amazing friends and oh, yeah, the sun exists there on a consistent basis.

Here are some highlights of our weekend in San Diego and a few travel tips for your next trip out west.  First things first.  Rent a car.  In my opinion, San Diego proper is just a small part of the experience in going to San Diego.  I think the neighboring towns and beaches are actually what makes going there worth the experience.  So having a car to get around, get to/from the airport is critical.  If you’re feeling really Californian, rent a red convertible.  We had a hot full-sized Chevy sedan.  Oh yeah!

Now, onto the fun stuff.

Stay at the US Grant Hotel.  Why?  It’s in a great location near the Gaslamp district, a short walk to the water and um, the hotel is beautiful and the beds are absolutely to die for.  The linens are like butter.  In fact, I met the Director of Operations and hope to order the sheets and duvet cover for our bed at home.

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How bad do you want this couch?  Ahhhh…a designers dream!

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Have lunch, shop and visit the seals in La Jolla.  La Jolla is a quaint town about 10-15 minutes from San Diego and features breath-taking views, boutique shopping and a slew of restaurant options.  This was one of my favorite parts of the trip!

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Spend the day at Coronado Beach.  This was such a nice day with our friends!  We enjoyed some bloodies at Hotel del Coronado, played in the sand and cherished the beautiful views.  Coronado Island is also about 15 minutes from San Diego and the drive is really pretty.

This is the famous Hotel del Coronado.

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Have brunch at Cafe 21 in the Gaslamp District (which is a few blocks from the US Grant Hotel).  Seriously.  Do it.  The menu is outrageously organic and ecclectic and the outcome of the food was dee-lish!  We wanted to go back there so bad!

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Take a drive down (and up!) Highway 101.  I’ve always wanted to do this…sort of a bucket list item for me and it was worth it!  I still want to do the full coast one day but for now, I will take the short drive we had from San Diego to Carlsbad.

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This is our dear friend, Mrs. Eisenberg.  She’s 92 going on 70 and is a truly a remarkable woman!

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Eat dinner at Bencotto Italian Kitchen in Little Italy.  Being from Chicago, I was admittedly a little skeptical to eat Italian food in San Diego.  But, our dear friends recommended this place and they have great taste (pun intended) so we went with it.  And I am SO happy we did.  Apart from the company and conversations being amazing, the wine I had there was unforgettable, especially because I took a picture of it.  Also, the seafood squid ink pasta was to. die. for.  I ate it too fast and didn’t get a picture…sorry!

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Visit friends.  If you don’t have any that live there, make some!  🙂  Gladys and Dom, thank you for making my birthday so special!

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Birthday Highlight #1: Glazed and Infused

awr-glazed-and-infused-8I recently shared my thoughts on turning thirty-three and now I am here to share some of the highlights while actually celebrating turning thirty-three.  On my actual birthday I took off of work as Rick and I were heading out to San Diego to spend a long weekend celebrating and visiting friends.  I, no doubt, was going to maximize the few hours I had before our flight took off.  I woke up early, read my bible, drank my Starbucks from my Keurig and headed out to go to “run a few errands.”  Well, I decided this year that a birthday cake or even cute cupcakes were a bit outdated so I walked over to a gourmet donut shop right by our house that I have been wanting to try called Glazed and Infused.

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As I opened the door, the smell of freshly baked donuts consumed every single smelling sense my body (or nose, I suppose) had.  I had the biggest smile on my face and the words “oh my gosh…oh my gosh” kept rolling off of my tongue (along with a long strand of drool) as I admired these glazed carbohydrate deliciousnesses.  I actually was like a kid in a candy store.  Or wait.  No.  I was a grown thirty-three year-old adult in a donut shop.  Yep.  That’s what I was.

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As my donut delirium took over, I decided to announce to everyone in the store that it was my birthday. (I think the donut smell was getting to me and making me do things I otherwise wouldn’t have done. Ha, yeah right.)  The employees couldn’t have been nicer and next thing I knew, they were making a very special birthday donut just. for. me.  Fresh glaze and all.

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In addition to my complimentary made-to-order glazed sugar and butter pile, I decided to also go for a chocolate cake donut with Bailey’s Irish creme and chocolate frosting with a dab of green sprinkles.  Sprinkled donuts are SUPER nostalgic for me as my dad would often get these for us for breakfast when my sister and I were younger and they were SUCH a treat.  Ahhh, memories.

awr-glazed-and-infused-11And the rest, my friends, is history.  What is the lesson here?  Go to Glazed and Infused!  Or if nothing else, check out your local gourmet donut shop and treat yourself.  And don’t worry for one second about the calories.  I sure didn’t!

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Life’s Simple Pleasures

Over the last few days, I delighted in a few of life’s simple pleasures.  It’s so important to find joy in even the smallest of things that pass us by each day.  I find when I stop and either snap a picture or just spend 10 seconds appreciating all things beautiful that surround me, it makes time slow down and joy increase.  It’s a win win.  Enjoy and I hope you can find joy in some of the simple pleasures you come across today!890

Valentine’s Day cupcakes served at my second annual cousins game night. French vanilla with dark chocolate frosting.  #yum887

It’s always a good day when my HGTV Magazine arrives. 881

Good fortune.

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Candy dishes make me happy.  And credit to my friend Vaneesha for giving me this idea. Filled this Pottery Barn monogram glass canister with tons and tons of Swedish fish to add some Valentine’s Day candy flare in our living room.

903Fresh flowers…how could they not make you smile?

896JT Suit and Tie. #enoughsaid #grammys

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My March issue of Travel + Leisure magazine arrived and what do you know?  Rome is the feature and Rick and I are literally planning our trip to Rome as we speak. Love it when that happens.889

Truffle popcorn. Yes, please.904Best card ever from a best friend.

What to Get the Person Who Has Everything.

what-to-get-the-person-who-has-everythingAs Rick’s birthday was approaching this year, I knew I had to think of something good, creative and F-U-N.  You see, in the game of “who gives better presents,” Rick is kicking my you-know-what.  Not that it’s a competition or anything (ahem and not like I am competitve) but I really did want to make this birthday memorable for him.  And then I remembered my friend Katie’s blog (Katie is Keen On) where she hired this dude named Chef Andrew from The Crying Onion, a private chef, as a gift for her friends that were getting married.  Oooohhh, this could be good for Rick!

I contacted Andrew, we dialogued a bit, I asked some questions, I chose the menu (there are literally so many options to choose from and Andrew is super flexible) and I invited my parents, sister and brother-in-law to come to the city to surprise Rick.  Perfecto!  A mini, intimate surprise dinner party at home where I we don’t cook or clean up  (oh, did I mention Andrew takes care of that, too?) for the guy who has everything. Okay he doesn’t have everything but being in the hotel biz, he goes out to tons of dinners so this would be a nice treat, something special, something we’ve never done, something memorable and if Andrew is as good as my friend said he was, it would also be tasty. Now, let me take you through this culinary delight.

{First things first.  The menu at a glance.  On our new chalkboard wall in our dining room.}

ann-written-notes-private-chef-dinner-party{Next up, setting the table.  I was really excited about this as we just bought our new Restoration Hardware Flatiron Dining Table so this was our first dinner party using the new goods.  Plus, I scored the Neiman Marcus cocktail glasses on clearance from Target and busted those out for a little gold bling, naturally.}

IMG_3185 IMG_3186 {This vase is actually the Illume Boulangerie Jar candle from Anthropologie. I love the single pink-tipped rose in it!}IMG_3187 {I love these paper placemats from Cake Vintage.  They are perfect as they do the job, they’re super cute and are customizable.}

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{Enter Chef Andrew.  Cooking in our kitchen.  He brings all the ingredients, pots, pans, everything!}  ann-written-notes-what-to-get-the-person-who-has-everything

{First Course – The Appetizer:  Crab cake with a spicy and sweet relish, siracha and brown mustard.}
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{Second Course – The Salad:  Arugula salad with shaved vegetables and mandarin oranges topped with seared salmon and salmon sushi on the side. Mouth watering yet?}

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{Third Course – The Soup: Roasted butternut squash soup with roasted pork.}

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{Fourth Course – The Main Event: Braised beef short ribs with some ridiculously awesome other stuff like scallions, rice noodle salad, sweet and sour yumminess and a lot of things I am forgetting.  Just trust me, it was de-lish.}

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{The Fifth Course – The Dessert: Homemade (obviously) apple fritter and um, oh…homemade donuts with saffron glaze, chocolate glaze and vanilla glaze sauces.  Yeah, that was dessert.  Watching him fry those bad boys in the pan caused me to drool a bit which was a little embarrassing but he understood.}

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{And of course, a birthday toast!}

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Well, ladies and gents, hiring a private chef hit. the. spot. Pun intended.  It was an incredible night, Andrew is ridiculously talented, the prices are reasonable and none of us will forget the experience.  I would highly recommend not only him but the concept of hiring a private chef for a special occasion!

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