Monthly Archives: February 2012

North Carolina ROCKS!


The Blue Ridge Mountains may not be as huge and dramatic as the Rocky Mountains, but I still like them more. Maybe it’s because in springtime they’re covered with beautiful emerald foliage and in the autumn they are a fireworks display of red, gold and bronze. And maybe it’s because the mountain ranges are so close to one of my favorite places, Asheville, North Carolina.

There are hundreds of places to hike and bike, picnic and nature watch throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. I’ve chosen three places I’ve visited in the area to showcase here: Chimney Rock, Grandfather Mountain and Mount Mitchell.


Chimney Rock State Park is about 25 miles southeast of Asheville and located near Lake Lure. The centerpiece of the park is, of course, Chimney Rock, the base of which rises to an elevation of 2,280 feet. Climb to the top of Chimney Rock, another 315 feet, and you can see for 75 miles. In spring, summer or fall, it’s a lovely sight.

There are several trails throughout the park, some easy walks, some very challenging. I always opt for the easy-going trail to the base of Hickory Nut Falls, one of the highest waterfalls east of the Mississippi.  It may be one of  the easiest of the trails, but it’s still a bit of a walk. However, deep into the forest it’s so quiet and relaxing. You really feel like you’ve escaped from the stress of your every day world.

If you’re an experienced hiker, take the challenging Skyline trail to the top of the falls, 404 feet above the base. While on this trail, you can see several unusual rock formations like the Opera Box, Devil’s Head and the Exclamation Point, which is at the very top of the Skyline trail, another 200 feet above Chimney Rock itself. Several scenes from the 1992 movie version of “The Last of the Mohicans” with Daniel Day-Lewis were shot in and around Chimney Rock State Park.


Grandfather Mountain is one of the highest peaks in the Blue Ridge Mountains with an elevation of 5,946 feet. It’s 70 miles from Asheville. The first time I ventured from Asheville to Grandfather Mountain the roads were extremely fogged in. I wasn’t able to make it up there until my next visit to North Carolina the following year.

The highlight of your journey to Grandfather Mountain is the Mile-High Swinging Bridge, which is a mile above sea level and affords 360 degree views, on a clear day, of up to 100 miles. Built in 1952, this 228 foot steel structure is America’s highest suspension footbridge.

Grandfather Mountain State Park has 11 hiking and nature trails. You can take a leisurely stroll through the forest or choose to explore the more rugged terrain through Grandfather Mountain’s backcountry climbing ladders and cables up the cliff faces

The park is home to 73 rare and endangered animals, many of which you can observe in their natural settings in one of the seven environmental habitats. Cougars, white-tailed deer, river otters, black bears and golden eagles are housed here. These habitats are not like ordinary zoo cages. Instead of being artificially created, they were built around the animals’ native habitats. You get a great up-close view of these animals, seeing how they live in the wild. Now, in the wild, black bears don’t normally wave at you for nibbles of food, but these do. They were very entertaining.

Grandfather Mountain has also been featured in a film, Tom Hanks’ 1994 movie “Forest Gump.”


Mount Mitchell is part of the Black Mountains and is the highest point east of the Rockies at 6,684 feet. Just 35 miles northeast of Asheville, Mount Mitchell is reached via an incredible scenic drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Mount Mitchell State Park was the first state park in North Carolina, established in 1915 and named after Elisha Mitchell who was the first one to determine the mountain’s height. At the summit, which is  fogged in most days, lies an observation platform and a memorial to Mitchell. In addition to Mount Mitchell, there are several other peaks in the area over 6,000 feet above sea level including Mount Hallback, Mount Craig, Big Tom and Balsam Cone. With 8 miles of hiking trails throughout the park, you can truly get back to nature here.

So if you love the mountains, which I do, and you live on the east coast, which I do, you can have a wonderful mountain adventure without having to travel all the way across the country.

Hike the Blue Ridge Mountains because North Carolina ROCKS!

Dates of Visits:  2001-2006

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Beard Papa – Awesome Cream Puffs


While on a visit to San Francisco in 2007, I came across this little shop with a funny name, Beard Papa. What was that? I had to check it out. It was a sort of pastry shop selling “fresh ‘n natural cream puffs.” Who can resist that? Not me. I was hooked from the first bite.

Beard Papa is a Japanese company that opened its first store in 1999. Now there are over 250 stores in Japan and 300 more worldwide. In the US, the locations are mostly on the West Coast. So, upon returning to Florida, I was no longer able to get my Beard Papa fix. But lo and behold, last year a store opened in Sanford, Florida (a little north of Orlando.)

Beard Papa’s choux pastry cream puffs are about four inches in diameter and stuffed with a variety of whipped cream custard filling flavors including vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, coffee, banana, and special flavors like raspberry, Pina Colada, mango and green tea. Filling flavors are sold on a rotating schedule, but they always have vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. I prefer the eclairs which have vanilla cream and a chocolate ganache topping.

Beard Papa uses the freshest ingredients and organically grown vanilla. The puffs are also free of preservatives. Each puff is filled upon ordering, keeping them incredibly fresh and delicious.

In addition to the cream puffs, Beard Papa has Mochi ice cream, a bite-sized Japanese rice cake and ice cream treat which comes in a bunch of different flavors. They also serve smoothies, frappes and shakes. They now even have lunch entrees like salads, sandwiches and stuffed potatoes. I haven’t tried anything but the cream puffs, however the gigantic stuffed sweet potatoes have caught my eye. I’ll have to try one next time.

The cream puffs are a bit expensive, about $2.00 a piece, but you can save money by buying them in a six pack. Why not? Keep them refrigerated and you can enjoy them for a few days, although they are best when eaten right away.

Dates of Visit:  2007 to present

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Boston’s Fish House


I’m not a seafood lover, but if you are, Boston’s Fish House is a place you should check out. But be prepared to wait in line because there is almost always a line out the door. What does that tell you? Yeah, it’s very popular.

All ingredients are fresh, flown in daily, and everything is made to order from scratch. Portions are large and prices very reasonable. The menu includes all your standard seafood items: shrimp, clams, lobster, oysters, scallops, catfish, and salmon. These are available fried in vegetable oil, but if you prefer a more healthy option you can have your seafood broiled Cajun style, in garlic butter and white wine, or with a Ritz Cracker topping.

Even though I’m not a big seafood eater, I do like a good tuna salad. Boston’s Fish House makes a great tuna salad. It’s flavorful, not fishy, and is served on either a sub roll or Nissen roll, which I usually choose. (A Nissen roll is like a flat hot dog bun.) The wonderful tuna salad has been on and off the menu for years. It’s all based on the price of fresh tuna. If Boston’s can’t get it at a reasonable price, there’s no tuna salad available at the restaurant. So, rather than serving tuna that’s not up to their standards, they choose to not serve it at all.

I also love their potato salad. I don’t know what they do to it, but it’s deliciously sweet and amazing. My tuna salad sandwich comes with two sides and I always get two potato salads.

New England Clam Chowder is another seafood dish that I actually like. Boston’s is creamy, full of potatoes and a hint of bacon, so not for vegetarians.

Don’t forget about dessert. Boston’s Fish House serves what I consider the most enormous piece of Boston Cream Pie in the universe. (Okay, I’m exaggerating, but it is big.) It’s enough for at least two people to share. I always have to get it to go since I’m too full after the meal.

The first Boston’s Fish House opened in 1988 in a tiny house on Aloma Avenue in Winter Park. It became so popular that in 1994 they had to move up the street to a larger location, which is where they are now, still on Aloma Avenue in Winter Park.  They now have a new location in Sanford, Florida.

The decor is kitschy seaside (pelicans, stuffed fish, boats, buoys) combined with anything related to Boston or New England. The staff is attentive and very friendly. And every time I’ve been there, one of the owners is either running the cash register or helping the wait staff. It’s definitely family-owned and operated.

Boston’s Fish House is open every day except Monday with varying hours. Check their website for times.

Dates of Visit:   2000 to present

Categories: Eat, Florida | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Melting Pot


We celebrated Valentine’s Day early this year with dinner at The Melting Pot. It had been quite a while since our last visit, so we thought it would be fun to go again. The Melting Pot is a fondue restaurant and what they call a “unique interactive dining experience.” That’s because you have to work for your food, cooking it yourself at the table.

You can choose a four-course meal which starts with cheese fondue, then salad, your entree and chocolate fondue dessert. Although I love the cheese fondue, we opted to just have three courses so that we weren’t overly full by the time dessert arrived.

But if you do want to partake of the cheese fondue, there are several yummy selections: Spinach Artichoke Cheese, Fiesta Cheese, Cheddar, Wisconsin Trio and Swiss.

For the second course (first for us) try the House Salad with The Melting Pot’s signature sweet and tangy salad dressing. I love this dressing. It’s probably my favorite part of the whole meal. Good thing is that you can take home a bottle if you like.

Entrees include chicken, lobster, salmon, shrimp, Filet Mignon and even a vegetarian option. We decided to share one platter of chicken and one of Filet Mignon. The entrees are cooked in one of four oils or broths. There are several batters to coat your pre-cooked meats, tempura-style, and several dipping sauces for after cooking.

The dessert course is well worth waiting for. There are a variety of chocolate options: Cookies ‘n Cream with Marshmallow, Bananas Foster, Flaming Turtle, Chocolate S’mores, Yin & Yang (white and dark chocolate together) or plain chocolate. And just for fun, add a shot of liqueur. We had milk chocolate with a shot of Bailey’s Irish Cream in which we dipped strawberries, pound cake, cheesecake, marshmallows, brownies and bananas.

The first Melting Pot opened in Maitland, Florida back in 1975, when the fondue craze was probably at its peak. That location has since closed, but there are many locations across the United States, including one in Maui. They’re branching out now into the rest of North America with a location in Edmonton, Canada and one coming soon to Mexico City.

So whether you’re looking to celebrate an anniversary or birthday, or want to have a special night out, and don’t mind working for your food, The Melting Pot is a unique restaurant experience. It’s not just fondue, it’s Fun-due!

Dates of Visit:  February 12, 2012 

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The Dessert Lady



Just speak the words “Dessert Lady” and I am there!

We first discovered this little slice of sweet heaven back when it was located off Kirkman Road near Universal Studios, Orlando. That Kirkman location has since closed, but The Dessert Lady lives on in her newest digs, downtown on Church Street, and within walking distance of the new Orlando Arena — a much better spot for post-game, post-concert and pre-partying refreshments.

This unique dessert bistro serves wine, cocktails, gourmet coffees and the most luscious of confections. Because there are so many extraordinary dessert choices, we always opt for the sampler platter — four smaller pieces of cake, cheesecake or other seasonal dessert.

The Dessert Lady’s Carrot Cake, always a winner for sure, is out of this world, and has no nuts for those of you who prefer it that way. My second favorite is the Chocolate Neapolitan Cake, six layers of scrumptious cake with raspberry mousse, chocolate ganache and raspberry sauce. Then there’s the Six Layer Chocolate Cake, Peanut Butter Pie, Fudge Ripple Bread Pudding, a variety of cheesecake flavors and seasonal desserts which sometimes include another favorite of mine, Caramel Apple Cake. The desserts are a bit pricey, but they are large portions and you definitely get what you pay for.

Owner Patti Schmidt became The Dessert Lady back in 1997. But way before that, she started creating carrot cakes in her garage for a local bakery. Her passion for baking blossomed into a full line of desserts and the desire to open up her own establishment. Her cozy dessert and wine bar now features a lunch menu with sandwiches and quiche. Catering is also available and you can buy made-to-order whole cakes to bring home.

The Dessert Lady has been voted “Best Dessert” by the Orlando Magazine Dining Awards, the Orlando Sentinel’s Foodie Awards and Travel Magazine’s Top 25 Reasons to Visit Orlando. The bistro is open every day with varying hours, but until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.

Save some room after your dinner downtown and stop by The Dessert Lady for a drink and dessert that you’ll never forget. As Pattie herself has said, “There’s never a bad experience with dessert.”

Dates of Visit:  2005 to present

Categories: Eat, Florida | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Port Orleans Resort


With Walt Disney World being so close to Orlando where I live, it’s easy to drive down to the theme parks just for the day. But sometimes, it’s nice to get away for a short Disney vacation and stay over for a night…or two.

One of the nicest, of the modestly priced resorts at Walt Disney World, is Port Orleans, nestled along the banks of the Sassagoula River. The resort is made up of two distinct sections or parishes: Riverside and The French Quarter. For both of our visits, we stayed in the Riverside section. Riverside consists of the Southern plantation style mansions of Magnolia Bend (where we stayed in 2010) and the rustic cottages of Alligator Bayou (where we stayed in 2011). The architecture of the French Quarter is, of course, inspired by the famous area in New Orleans.

This picturesque waterfront resort is a wonderfully quiet change from some of the other busier Disney resort hotels. It really feels like you’ve stepped back in time or at least away from the hectic life you left behind.

There are a couple of restaurants and shops on property and plenty of things to do if you want to take a break from the theme parks. The Riverside Mill Food Court serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Depending on what building your room is in, it can be a bit of a walk to Riverside Mill Food Court, but it is a nice quiet walk through the property. We had breakfast there every morning where I enjoyed a Mickey Mouse waffle! For a sit down dinner, there’s Boatwright’s which serves steaks, prime rib and seafood. Fulton’s General Store carries Disney merchandise, snacks, beverages and sundries.

For recreation you can swim in one of the many pools around the property, rent bicycles or boats, take a guided fishing excursion or board a horse-drawn carriage for a romantic ride through the resort.

Port Orleans is on Disney property, but not directly connected by boat or monorail to any of the theme parks. However, bus service is easily available to take you to all theme parks and water parks.

There is also a riverboat that can take you to the Downtown Disney Marketplace and West End. This tranquil, scenic ride is quite lovely and relaxing and stops at both Riverside and The French Quarter. If you get a chance to take the boat back at night, you might see rows of herons lined up on the banks of the river. They wait for the riverboats to churn up the water and bring fish to the surface. It’s a pretty interesting sight to see all these white birds waiting to catch their dinner!

There’s no question that the next time we plan a Disney World getaway, we’ll book a stay at Port Orleans. For the money, it’s the best deal going.


Dates of Visit:  June 2010 & March 2011

Categories: Disney, Sleep | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

EPCOT-A Journey Around the World and Beyond

Spaceship Earth at Disney's EPCOT


Sometimes I think that EPCOT is probably not the most popular of Walt Disney World’s theme parks.  Even though, based on attendance numbers, it is the fifth most popular theme park in the world.  I think kids prefer the Magic Kingdom.  Other adults may like Disney’s Hollywood Studios because of the rides or the Animal Kingdom for the, well, animals.  But I like EPCOT the best.  Maybe it’s because I love to travel and while at EPCOT I get to travel to 11 different countries, under the sea, into space and back in time in just a few hours.  And maybe it’s because it’s never too crowded.

EPCOT is an acronym for “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.”  Although it’s not called that anymore, it describes Walt Disney’s original vision for the site that is now the entire Walt Disney World Resort.  He envisioned a community of the future, even before the Magic Kingdom was built.  But after his death, the company decided to take another direction and give EPCOT a feeling more like a World’s Fair.

Journey to Imagination at EPCOTAs you probably already know, EPCOT is divided into two distinct sections, Future World and World Showcase.

In World Showcase, the architecture of each pavilion is inspired by real buildings from each country.  They really are quite beautiful. I usually spend most of my time in World Showcase experiencing the sights and sounds and meeting people from around the world.  Most of the cast members in World Showcase are from outside the US.  I do enjoy meeting and talking to them.  They usually have great stories to tell about their countries.

Then there’s the music.  Pretty much any day of the week you can hear music from Morocco, Norway, Germany, Japan, Mexico and Canada.  One of my favorite bands is Off Kilter.  They’re a Celtic Rock band that play in the Canada pavilion. You may not think that a bagpipe can rock out, but it can.  These guys put on a great show.  I have all their CDs.  The British Invasion, in the United Kingdom pavilion, was another favorite.  But sadly, after 15 years, they stopped performing in 2011.  Plans are in the works to get another band to replace them.

Mexico pavilion at EPCOT

And then during the annual Flower and Garden Festival (Spring) and Food and Wine Festival (Autumn) the American Gardens Theater hosts all different kinds of musical groups.  The Flower Festival’s “Flower Power” concert series includes music from the ‘60s and ‘70s like Davy Jones from The Monkees, The Grass Roots, Chubby Checker, and Jose Feliciano.  The Food and Wine Festival’s “Eat to the Beat” concert series includes performers like Taylor Dane, Starship, Jon Secada and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.  All concerts are free with park admission.

And don’t forget the food from around the world. I especially enjoy Les Chef De France which has delicious French onion soup and desserts only the French can make.  I just recently discovered a fabulous alcoholic beverage in Japan called Tokyo Sunset, a blend of coconut rum, peach schnapps, banana liqueur and pineapple juice.  Super yummy.

But when it comes to the food at EPCOT, the best is experienced at the Food and Wine Festival.  You can partake of delectable delicacies from more than 20 countries.  I never miss the Cheddar Cheese Soup and the Maple Fudge in Canada, Belgium’s Belgian waffles, and Sweden’s Swedish meatballs.  All are served tapas style so you can sample up to 75 different dishes during your trip around the world.

Italy at EPCOTOn October 1, 2012, EPCOT will celebrate its 30th anniversary.  Now, some of the attractions are a bit outdated, but they are refurbishing and reimagining new attractions all the time.

On the Future World side, Spaceship Earth has been updated with a new interactive ending.  The old World of Motion attraction was revamped into Test Track.  Horizons became Mission: Space.  The Land pavilion was overhauled to include Soarin’, an attraction that became very popular at Disney’s California Adventure.  The Living Seas became a showcase for the movie “Finding Nemo.”  The Universe of Energy was retooled by adding an amusing introduction, “Ellen’s Energy Adventure” with Ellen DeGeneres.

Around World Showcase, Canada’s Circlevision 360 film “Oh, Canada” has also been revamped and now stars actor Martin Short.  New restaurants have been added to Italy and Mexico.

There are a few things I do miss from the original list of attractions.  The first 3-D movie at EPOCT, called “Magic Journeys,” was amazing.  Maybe it’s because that was the first 3-D movie I had seen that really blew me away.  Kitchen Kabaret in The Land, although pretty silly, was fun.  And the entire Wonders of Life pavilion is no more.  Although I wasn’t a big fan of “Body Wars,” I did like some of the other parts of the Wonders of Life.Norway at EPCOT

Before EPCOT even opened, the park gave out a full color artist’s rendering book with artwork depicting each pavilion and attraction.  I still have that book.  It’s very cool to look at it and see how the park turned out. It’s pretty much as the Imagineers envisioned.  Although, some attractions never made it past the “coming soon” stage like World Showcase pavilions for Israel, Africa and Spain.  Africa is represented by a refreshment station, but is of course a huge part of Animal Kingdom now.

I would have to say that my favorite parts of EPCOT, besides the music and munchies, are Spaceship Earth, the Dinosaur portion of the Universe of Energy, Soarin’ and Mission: Space, but not right after a meal!

Dates of Visit:  Various from 1982 until present

Categories: Disney, Play | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Joey’s Pancake House – The Best Smoky Mountain Breakfast


Every time we are in the Asheville, North Carolina area, we make the Pancake Pilgrimage to downtown Maggie Valley and visit Joey’s Pancake House.  You may be thinking a pancake is a pancake, but you’d be wrong.  These pancakes are the best… well worth the drive from Asheville. 

Joey’s is a family style restaurant that has been serving breakfast in Western North Carolina since 1966. Joey and Brenda O’Keefe hadn’t planned on becoming restaurant owners, but after 45 years, their customers are sure glad they did.  Joey and Brenda worked closely together at the restaurant until Joey’s death in 2001.  Brenda thought about giving it up after that, but because her staff has become so much of a family to her, she decided to stick to it.  Joey’s likeness is still on the menus, website, t-shirts and coffee mugs. 

The menu consists of pancakes, of course, but not just plain pancakes.  They have blueberry, pecan, chocolate chip, peanut butter, banana, silver dollar, whole wheat with apples and more.  There’s also waffles, French toast, Eggs Benedict and sausage gravy with biscuits.  And to accompany, country ham, bacon, sausage, grits, hash brown casserole, fresh fruit, oatmeal, cereal, cooked to order eggs and omelets…my mouth is watering!!

And if you can’t stand to leave the great taste of Joey’s Pancakes behind, you can bring home one of their Smoky Mountain Pancake and Waffle mixes.

Don’t be surprised to see a line out the door.  On a busy day, Joey’s can serve up 800 customers.  But don’t worry, the wait is never that long, even during the peak autumn leaf changing season.  Service is fast, but it never seems like they’re rushing you out.  You can definitely sit, read your newspaper and enjoy your coffee and breakfast. 

Be sure to call ahead or check the website for their hours of operation.  Joey’s is open daily April through October, 7am to noon, closed on Thursdays; November through February, 7am to noon, on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday; Closed during March.

Dates of Visit:  Various visits from 2000 to present

Categories: Eat, North Carolina | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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