Thursday, January 21, 2016

{Vacation ReCap} Costa Rican Babymoom at the Four Seasons & Andaz Resorts

So this is going to be short because there isn't a lot a pregnant lady can do in Costa Rica, ha. However, I wanted to note our trip because it was in celebration of Finley and we can't wait to go back as a family.  We took this trip in May of 2015 which I highly recommend because it's just after the busy season so rates are extremely reasonable.

Where we stayed:  Four Seasons in the Papagayo Peninsula and then the Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort.  We picked the Four Seasons for the majority of our stay because they were having such an amazing deal, but on what was to be our last night, the price more than doubled.  The Andaz was nearby and also highly rated so we transferred there for our final night.  At the time, the Four Seasons was rated #1 on Trip Advisor followed by Andaz, but as of this post, it seems to have flipped which surprises me.

We much preferred the service and offerings of the Four Seasons as the Andaz service wasn't quite "there" yet - you could tell they were still working out the kinks and I think they were understaffed at the restaurants and hotel.  It wouldn't have annoyed me as much if it wasn't categorized as a 5-star hotel and considered on par with the Four Seasons so my expectations were high.  We found ourselves waiting a long time at the restaurant and bar and the staff while, nice, wasn't as professional and friendly.  Our room at the Four Seasons also had this amazing closed in porch that was super comfortable whereas the porch at the Andaz just wasn't as conducive to relaxing (no place to prop your feet up, set a drink, etc).  There was also no beach at the Andaz and one of my favorite activities (probably because it was the only thing a pregnant lady could do!) was hiking up and around the beach at the Four Seasons.

However, the Andaz is quite beautiful and we preferred their pools because they were infinity pools.  I also appreciate that the mini-bar is free (no alcohol) and that they have things in the room such as a beach bag, hats, and flip flops available to borrow.  The rooms were gorgeous and modern and the shower was amazing (it was glass enclosed stone and opened onto the porch).  However, the bathroom was an open concept design which doesn't leave enough to the imagination if you catch my drift.  There is no way for someone to quietly use the bathroom or sink at night or early morning.   I think the Andaz is awesome and we would definitely stay there again, but it should probably be a different category of hotel because their level of service is no way on par with a place like the Four Seasons. That would also require lowering their price as well (usually they are comporably priced).

Our Porch @ Four Seasons - we spent many evenings and mornings out here.

Room @ Four Seasons

Monkeys outside our room @ Four Seasons. One morning we saw a huge group of them playing and running around each other.

View into bathroom @ Four Seasons

Beach @ Four Seasons

Pool @ Four Seasons

Room @ Andez.  We loved the style: concrete floors, modern ammenities and more of a nature inspired design. The resort as a whole did a fantastic job of building around the natural beauty of Costa Rica and blending in.

Note the open concept bathroom set-up:  Looks great! Sounds sure to room alone or be VERY comfortable with those you are rooming with!

The Shower, however, is incredible. The glass doors open onto the balcony.

The porch @ Andez looks good but isn't very comfortable. The lack of light late at night or early morning makes it impossible to read and there's nowhere to place a glass of wine or cup of coffee. The table isn't sturdy enough to prop your feet on either.  Gorgeous views though. Concept is great - just needs a few touches to make it more comfortable. As Tom is usually up before I am, he missed having a comfortable place to hang out while I slept in.

Gorgeous Pools - loved the infinity design and how much it's built into the land -  like it belongs there.

Cute, quirky van outside of Andez

What we did:  We pretty much stayed at the pool and on the actual resort due to the baby so we can't wait to come back and do the more active excursions Costa Rica is known for.  I loved that the Four Seasons had a ton of free activities such as guided hikes, cooking classes and the like.  One we were looking forward to was a star gazing excursion but it was canceled due to rain which was a bummer. I am also excited to come back to the Four Seasons as a family.  They did such a great job keeping any kids on the resort entertained and away from the more adult areas.  While I will obviously need a family friendly resort someday, it's nice to know that the adults in the group or those without kids can still come on vacation and enjoy themselves in peace!

We took several hikes while at the Four Seasons; some on our own and others guided, and soaked up the stunning views and wildlife.

The one big excursion we sprung for was playing 9-holes at the Arnold Palmer Golf Course which was stunning and something we still talk about.   I laugh thinking about the fact that I initially proposed we "walk the course" instead of ride - yeah right!

How we got there:  We used Southwest points (Tom is my "companion" so he flies free) and flew nonstop into San Jose.  If you aren't constrained by points, I'd fly into the Liberia airport as its only about 45 minutes from the resort vs 4 hours (we hired a private driver).

We had such a great, relaxing trip and it was over way too fast.  As soon as we were back in the States things got crazy: I lost my wallet at the airport (fell out of my bag when I flung it into a taxi has a happy ending though: someone mailed it back to me!),  we experienced the move from hell, and I had business trips galore.  So essentially, we counteracted the relaxation almost immediately.   Oh well - guess we will have to plan another trip!


Wednesday, January 6, 2016

{Vacation ReCap} New York, New York!

So this - and a lot of upcoming posts - are about a year overdue...between not having a working home computer and the baby (plus work which revved up just before my leave), I never got the chance to post about our New York trip from January 2015!   It was a really special and memorable vacation for us, because it is where we found out we were expecting Finley!   Besides that, we hit up some great places and I wanted to note them here so that we can find them easily in the future.   I also have friends who are going soon and figured this might help them as well.

I flew to NY for a client trip and decided to turn it into a fun weekend get-a-way with Tom.  The Tuesday prior to leaving, I took a pregnancy test which came back negative.  As anyone who has ever actively tried for a baby knows, the two-week wait can be killer and once I got the results, I resigned myself to the fact that we were gonna have to wait an additional month for good news.  I decided not to take any tests with me on the trip, because those things are spendy and I was obsessively going through them.  I'm putting that disclaimer here for a reason :)

Once Tom got there, we had an awesome night on the town.  Early the next morning, I saw he had packed the pregnancy tests so I took one - it was a sickness, if I saw a pregnancy test, I HAD to take it! - and what do you know?!  It was positive!  It was incredibly happy news and definitely changed some of our plans.

Prior to going, I reached out to Gluten Free Blondie who always seems to post the yummiest food on instagram. I reached out to her for recommendations and she did not disappoint!

Here's the rundown of our trip!

Where we stayed:  SoHo/Tribeca  While the hotel wasn't anything super special (definitely small as it's NYC) it was clean and in a great location. (and free as I used SPG points!). I tend to not worry so much about staying in super unique hotels when in a big city because I know that most of the time I'll be out and about.  For this trip,  I wanted to stay away from the super touristy areas because I have done a lot of the "touristy" NYC things on a previous trip and Tom said he really just wanted to explore the neighborhoods and hang out more than anything else.  Seeing Times Square is fun and a must do for anyone's first trip, but we knew that if we went there, we wouldn't be staying long - therefore it made more sense for us to keep our base somewhere else.  Being able to easily walk through SoHo - a neighborhood where I'd love to live! - and having Chinatown right there was exactly what we wanted.    For what it's worth, my cousin used to live in NYC and she has recommended that no one go past Midtown when visiting or risk being on tourist overload.  Just FYI for anyone else planning a trip.

What we did:  We pretty much just explored and ate and had no real itinerary.  The weather was not the best so our plans to go to the "Top of the Rock" fell through (we got to the line and were turned away). We did make time to run through Times Square because Tom had never seen it, but once we took a gander, we were ready to get out of there - definitely sensory overload but fun nonetheless.  We had less than 48 hours total so just played it by ear.   We knew we couldn't get to everything: shows, Central Park, Statue of Liberty etc, so just made this a relax, eat and explore trip. I  had planned to see the World Trade Center Memorial, but it's not the easiest to get to and it was also a bit somber for what we were looking for during our short time there.  I have heard great things though and will be sure to see it when we come back!   We were able to hit the Natural History Museum with my godson which was a bonus. I am pretty sure NY moms use the lower level as a place to let their kids have free reign to run around in a safe environment. Can't say I blame them!

Where we ate and drank:

Angel's Share: I wish I remember where I first heard of this Japenese Speakeasy, but it was such a blast and I highly recommend it.  Hidden in the back of a Japanese restaurant in the East Village, it is cozy and inviting bar with super creative cocktails.  I recommend being an early bird to avoid a wait - it got very packed shortly after we arrived.  The drinks were outstanding and everyone was super friendly. We made fast friends with the people around us.  I had quite a few whiskey cocktails and was feeling no pain at the end of the night!   I had never really tried Japanese Whiskeys and while I will always be a bourbon girl, I loved the experience.

Babbo:  My cousin once took me to this Greenwich Village Mario Batoli restaurant years ago and said it was her favorite at the time and it still is to this day.  As she lived in NYC for years, I take the recommendation seriously :)  I wanted to try somewhere new for our "fancy" dinner but couldn't get this place out of my mind.  Luckily Tom was game and loved it as much as I did!   If you go to NYC for a show and want a nice place to eat beforehand, I recommend this restaurant hands down. It's Italian food in the vein of Anti-Prima for any Chicago Locals (meaning if you are expecting never-ending bowls of pasta, look elsewhere).  I also appreciated that while it is a "nice" restaurant you can get away with wearing jeans and a good shirt.   I recommend reservations, although if you are early birds you might get lucky!

Balthazar: Another place my cousin took me years ago and I just had to go back.  It's a French restaurant with delish oysters and seafood and another great contender for a nicer dinner out.  We didn't get reservations in time to have dinner,  but made sure to pop in for some cocktails at the bar. At the very least do that so you can experience the unique atmosphere or try grabbing a quick breakfast from their cafe next store.

Keste Pizza:  omg Keste - can you please come to Chicago already?!  This was one of Gluten Free Blondie's recommendations for hands-down the best gluten free pizza in NY.  It's located in the West Village and rivaled the amazing GF pizzas I experienced in Italy.  The only negative is that I have not yet found a comparable GF pizza place in Chicago.  This pizza was so good, I seriously considered cashing in Southwest points during my pregnancy just to have dinner there again.  Tom raved about his non-GF pizza as well and we will be back!

Egg Shop: Another of Gluten Free Blondie's suggestions that I highly recommend.  She noted at the time that it was just getting trendy and we immediately saw what she meant when the line ended up out the door.   I was surprised that Tom was up for trying it as he is not an Egg fan but he loved it. Inexpensive, quaint, healthy-ish, and delish  - it was just what we wanted for breakfast before wandering around the city.  As it is small, I only recommend this if you can get there before 10:30 a.m. - otherwise expect a decent wait.

Chelsea Market  & The High Line:  A really nice way to spend an afternoon or morning is walking through the Meat Packing District to the converted train tracks turned park known as The High Line (only picture I took was at the High Line which is included in this post), followed by exploring Chelsea Market (if you can, plan to  grab brunch or lunch there  - I am told Friedman's is a great option).  If you are not pregnant, I recommend ending the excursion with drinks at the Tippler a subterranean bar located under the Chelsea Market.  Have one for me as I missed out while there!

If you have a sweet tooth, try Tu-Lu's Bakery!   Located in the East Village, they have a delish assortment of gluten free treats.  They are also open late which came in handy after the Japanese Whiskey we took down. I pretty much bought them out and loved everything I tried.  I even made a last minute run to stock up on the way to the airport.  This is another Gluten Free Blondie recommendation I took to heart.  Try the cinnamon sugar donut....yummm

Bareburger (multiple locations):  This is a great easy burger place with a ton of meat options (think bison and elk in addition to turkey and beef) in addition to being gluten free friendly.  It was a perfect place to go with my godson after hitting up a museum with my cousin during our last day in the City.

If you are into coffee, note that Oregon's Stumpton Roasters has taken over the city and the iced coffee (Nitro) is amazing.  I was also a huge fan of Blue Bottle coffee (I believe they are Seattle-based or maybe San Francisco based).

We hit up a few different great bars while there but unfortunately I don't have them bookmarked - we pretty much just wandered around and if it felt like cocktail time stopped somewhere that looked like fun.

Other Suggestions: We didn't make it to the following places, but I have heard good things about these cocktail/bars and restaurants.  I have even more saved under my yelp bookmarks so feel free to check them out and add to your list if you have one.  I recommend adding places you are interested in trying to your bookmarks so that when you are out exploring and hunger or thirst strikes, you can easily see if any of your bookmarked places are in the area.  It has worked like a charm on our trips.

Raines Law Room:  Hidden speakeasy type bar. Reviewers recommend eating somewhere in Chelsea if you don't have a reservation so you can put your name down before coming back.

Flatiron Lounge:  Seems like a fun place to get a drink - sexy, art deco decor.

Milk & Honey:  Speakeasy that is on my list to try.

Otto:  Another Mario Botali restaurant that is a bit cheaper and south of Union Sq.  They offer Gluten Free pasta for those that need it.

Meatball Shop (lots of locations):  Has a decent drink menu and is a fun inexpensive option for dinner.  Some of the meatballs are gluten free.

Lilli and Loo:  Asian restaurant with Gluten Free options including dumplings which I never see...

Pala: Gluten Free Blondie says it's her second favorite pizza place, but it wins over Keste for nicer atmosphere. They even offer gluten free calamari.

Friedman's: Mentioned in the Chelsea Market section above, it has locations all over the city and is supposedly excellent.

Hope this helps! If anyone has other great recommendation, please share!