Many moons ago, I was a 20-something study abroad student in Australia when I decided to train down to Melbourne for the weekend. I was by myself, and what felt like an adventure at the time of booking soon became a stressful few days. I quickly realized that while I loved to travel with a friend or group of friends, solo travel wasn’t my thing. I had a hard time venturing out to dine alone and recall racing out of a movie theater when the film was over, worried that someone would see me by myself. The horror! I’m not sure what my angst was about, but I highlight this story only to illustrate how far I’ve come.

Solo travel has become my favorite way to travel. Perhaps it’s a result of family life, motherhood, generalized chaos, and/or the desperate (albeit temporary) need to get a break from it all….but I now look forward to vacations where nobody joins but me and a stack of books.

From recent trips to British Columbia where I spent days hiking into the mountains, reading, and cooking out of a mini fridge and induction oven….to Portland where I made plans with friends with whom I’d been long out of touch…..I find that solo travel resets me and recharges my batteries like nothing else, making the effort of tackling work/kids/homework/afterschool activities all the more dignified.

Earlier in June I was invited to visit The Loren Hotel at Pink Beach in Bermuda, 4 days of bliss that felt more like 4 weeks. When I mentioned that I’d be visiting The Loren on my Instagram page, one of the first comments was that The Loren was one of the most exciting developments to happen in Bermuda in the last 25 years. 

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Friends, it’s been a while since I posted. The subject of my break isn’t the topic of this post, I’ll save that for another time. It’s been a long, hard, and in some ways, rewarding year filled with personal growth and introspection.

But at a certain point, once the drama of this last year began to fade into my rearview mirror, I felt that it was time to start working on food + travel projects again. The nice thing about my work on the internet is that my community is always here, waiting with open arms to invite me back into discussions about pork shoulder and piña coladas.

Speaking of which (the piña coladas, extra rum please) I had the immense pleasure of finding myself en route to the Cayman Islands last week. Surrounded by a group of women who would make me laugh until my belly hurt. I’d traveled with two of them before, Laura and Emily, so I knew that my time away would be filled with great conversation and plenty of rosé champagne. Two more women, Gillie and Carly were new friends, and people that I’ll lock & load into my cell phone for future adventures, of which I’m sure there will be many.

We touched down in Grand Cayman on Thursday afternoon, chilled to the bone from our frigidly cold air-conditioned flight to warmer climes. And though rain had kissed the area for several days before our visit and gave us a quick greeting as we unpacked our bags, sprinkling the beach with golden dewdrops, we’d have 4 straight days of sunshine ahead of us.

Our hosts at the Westin Grand Cayman at Seven Mile beach had reserved us a double decker cabana on the beach, and there we parked our hungry behinds while the final bits of darkened sky cleared up. We placed an order for some shared appetizers of creamy clam dip, smooth sesame-intense hummus, and conch fritters, along with a few cocktails to wash it down.

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If you’ve been following along on Instagram, you’ll have seen my frequent work for the olive oil company Lucini Italia. It’s been one of the most rewarding partnerships of my professional career, one based on mutual respect, support, and a darn strong love of olive oil.

Meaning “little glimmering light”, Lucini is the impassioned project of a husband-and-wife team who visited Tuscany several years ago, fell in love with the food, and lamented the lack of high quality extra virgin olive oils here in the United States. So they set about building a brand that would reflect the purity and quality of their beloved Tuscan oils, featuring first-pressed oils harvested early in the growing season to capture the peak of freshness. Although Lucini’s Premium Select Extra Virgin Oil from Tuscany is still their flagship product, the company (now owned by California Olive Ranch) wanted to create another extra virgin olive oil that would reflect the same quality standards, but would be priced for everyday use.

Entre Cielos Resort & Spa

The South American high desert region of Mendoza, popular for it’s famous wine export, Malbec, might seem like an odd choice for an American-based, Italian-inspired olive oil company to set up shop. But as we – Lucini’s brand ambassadors – have learned over the past few months, the soil and temperature conditions in Mendoza are ideal for growing Mediterranean crops such as olives, wine, nuts and citrus. Furthermore, Italian farming expats have been moving to Argentina for generations, and with them, have brought the skills and techniques to develop a bright green and peppery Argentinian extra virgin olive oil that rivals the finest Tuscan product.

After developing recipes for Lucini over the past few months, the company was eager to fly several of us lucky bums down to Argentina to see the olive oil-making process in person. We would visit two of their producers – the Perez family farm – which still uses an Old World hand-harvesting technique that produces a higher yield, but is a more labor-intensive (and costly!) process. And a second producer – Olivaterra – based in San Juan in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, which processes olives at the other end of the spectrum: large-scale and machinery-intensive, relying on the latest and greatest in olive oil processing capabilities (hello drones!)

The Perez Family Farm

Both experiences were fun and educational, with sights and sounds that were worlds apart, yet accomplished the same goal: a high-quality Tuscan-style extra virgin olive oil, as useful for cooking as it is for finishing.

But our Lucini hosts wanted us to experience much more than olive oil. Argentina is rich in culture and we were encouraged to soak it all in – the sun, the food, the people. After all, tourists don’t visit Tuscany simply to experience its lush olive oil tradition. Our Argentine itinerary was packed with visits to various wineries, restaurants (Francis Mallman’s 1884 Restaurant was a dream for those like to cook with fire), and the loveliest B&B tucked into the mountains. There, we rode horses, feasted on charcuterie, and I tackled two full plates of meltingly tender lamb shanks for dessert. Followed of course by our real dessert – flan – drizzled, as to be expected, with Dulce de leche.

El Enemigo Winery

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I’d by lying if I said that I knew anything about Hawaii before my third visit just a few weeks ago. I’d been to The Big Island twice, spent some time sequestered away at two pristine resorts, clinking celebratory glasses of champagne as I toasted two separate friends’ and family weddings.

But Maui was a new island for me, certainly one that I’d been excited to visit. I’d heard the stories of long-ago spring break vacations, Maui being the destination of choice for my West Coast family. But through the open nature of Instagram and the world wide web, new stories emerged from friends who actually grew up there. I heard of the tide and the flora, the wild beauty, the technicolor sunsets. It seemed so lush, so vivid, and who doesn’t dream of having a coffee plantation in her backyard.

Montage Kapalua Bay Resort

When invited to visit the newly-revamped Montage Kapalua Bay Resort in Maui, I jumped at the chance. The itinerary was filled to the Hawaiian gills with adventures both at the resort and beyond, letting us explore the island’s varied microclimates, from Kapalua Bay to Upcountry Maui, giving us a true sense for Mother Maui herself.

My husband, always keen to have a copy of my itinerary when I travel in case of emergency, asked me to forward my information to him at work. The file somehow became ensnared in his company’s firewall, requiring tech team intervention. In order to make sure that the information was legitimate, Rodney had to answer a set of questions regarding the material in question. “Is your wife going on a wellness trip?” Yes. “Will your wife be doing yoga?” Yes. “Lomi Lomi massage?” Yes. “Snorkeling.” Check. Although pure conjecture, I can imagine that in synchronized fashion, both Rodney and the chief firewall engineer were savoring frighteningly poor career choices.

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For those of you who know my past history with food and cooking, you’ll know of my late-ish start at the ripe old age of 25. Before cooking, there was canned soup, preferably Chunky beef stew. And before that, I survived on falafel sandwiches from the deli, cheeseburgers, Harvey’s poutine because, yes, I’m Canadian, and that’s how we roll with fast food in high school.

But in my 20s, things magically changed. I picked up a chef’s knife for the first time and learned to wield my way through pounds of onions, mountains of garlic, and bushels of tomatoes.

My first few meals felt like a Herculean accomplishment. I’ll never forget the first Pad Thai that I made at my Dad’s house, mounded on a platter, decorated with cilantro and quartered limes. The creamy soup that I couldn’t wait to serve my first ever dinner guests. The mortification over missing the directions to take the soup off the heat before adding the dairy…rendering my velvet beast into a curdled nightmare, more reminiscent of Chinese egg drop soup than anything vaguely Italian-ish.

And I will never, ever forget that first risotto, my first real accomplishment in the kitchen. The smell of the white wine hitting the pan to deglaze the sweet onions. The homemade stock, ladled into the pan one loving spoonful at a time. Making risotto always transported me into my grandmother’s kitchen. Such a cliché admission these days, the reminiscing about kitchens that once were. The domain of family matriarchs whose immigrant kitchens spawned earnest food from the homeland.

But it’s truth, plain and simple. My Nana ran that oregano-infused kitchen with an iron fist. And she loved risotto. Her house smelled like risotto. And though she never got to see me cook, or learn of my passion for food, I always feel as though I’m channeling her spirit when I stand at the stove and stir. And stir. I sip wine and I stir.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a dinner hosted by the feedfeed and Austerity Wines. Austerity had co-hosted an event in New York in the spring of ’17 and I’d remember getting pleasantly buzzed off of their velvety Cabarnet and a spicy Pinot Noir. This year I was game to try their wines again and was amped to start off the evening with sangria featuring their bright and tropical fruit-forward Chardonnay.

The dinner was effortlessly chic, cooked by chef Michael Chernow of Seamore’s restaurants in New York City. Winemaker Steven DeCosta spoke to us about Austerity’s production process and growing conditions for all of those lip-smacking grapes. Austerity’s Chardonnay comes from Monterey County’s Salinas Valley with its cool winds and warm midday sun, ideal growing conditions we learned. And as I teetered home after clinking glasses with some of my favorite NY cooks ), I started to brainstorm ideas for eating and pairing these jewels of the California wine country.

Starting with their Chardonnay- a bright and mineral flavor, perfectly paired with any spring meal. I confess that Chardonnay isn’t always my first choice when it comes to white wine – I find that an overly oaky taste is too much for my palate and tend to stick to grassier numbers – new world Sauvignon Blancs or a dry Pinot Gris. But I can enthusiastically get behind Austerity’s Chardonnay, smooth and buttery and with only a light oak flavor since much of the fermentation process happens in steel casks. It’s so enjoyable as a crisp drinking wine, that I almost considered not cooking with it and saving it for our Greenwood Lake sunset viewing sessions.

Almost.

Risotto was on my mind, as per usual. And just a splash of Chardonnay goes a long way to infuse the rice with a fruit-forward flavor, leaving the rest for me and my stirring/drinking habit.

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