A #Winning StayCay Getaway

Every family needs a break. Yes, it’s partially about powering down and resetting the hard drive, but it’s mostly about spending quality time together and treating everyone to a few simple pleasures. Given the cost of travel these days, not every vacation can involve a Caribbean island, Italian villa or a luxury hotel in the heart of Marrakesh. So my wife, two-year-old son and I often do a staycation weekend in the D.C. area to save money and time.

Over Fourth of July weekend, we were invited to spend two nights at the Marriott Wardman Park as a part of the hotel’s #StayDC Brand Influencer program. We arrived early Friday afternoon and simply picked up our key at the front desk, having already checked in using the handy dandy Marriott Mobile app (One very cool feature: it sends you an alert when your room is ready, so you can get into it early if it’s available). Our eighth floor executive suite was perfect for a family with a king-sized bed, plenty of space for running around, a fridge for snacks and a coffee maker (a must have for me). Another bonus of the hotel chain’s app is free Wi-Fi, which made staying connected cost-effective and convenient.

With our bags unloaded, we walked up to the zoo, only 15 minutes away. Of course, it was absolute mayhem. But that’s part of the deal on a holiday weekend.  I didn’t care. I don’t have enough opportunities to really get out into the District and explore its many attractions. That’s another reason I love staycations: they help you appreciate your hometown even more. The Reptile House was undoubtedly Zephyr’s favorite, since he’s obsessed with geckos, snakes and turtles, though the chipmunk that skittered across the path by the cheetah enclosure was a close second.

After returning to the hotel, so Zephyr could nap for a couple of hours, we headed to 2 Amys Neapolitan Pizzeria in Cathedral Heights for dinner, just a five-minute drive. Just harvested summer tomatoes and fresh ricotta drizzled with olive oil and a speckling of sea salt was a highlight complement to the five star zas. It was a wonderful way to end the first day of our staycay.

The next morning – Happy birthday, America! – we enjoyed the breakfast buffet on the 10th floor of the hotel with a view of Taft Bridge, upper Dupont Circle and the Capitol off in the muggy distance. A quick Metro ride got us to Penn Quarter to go to the Beach at the National Building Museum. The inventive installation takes up most of the building’s ground floor with a giant “ocean” of clear plastic balls (where the above photo was taken) and a “beach” packed with chairs and umbrellas. It was as fun for Zephyr to go “swimming” as it was for Poppa to “float” for a moment and relax.

There was a quick pit stop at Bakers & Baristas for an iced coffee before we headed down to the National Mall just in time to see a giant Smokey Bear floating over the parade. Then it was back to the hotel for a nap, followed by a barbeque at a friend’s house. That evening, we wound up on the couch at the hotel watching the fireworks on television. Sitting there oohing and aahing together over the colorful explosions was the perfect finale to our staycation weekend.

I’m happy to share a Marriott coupon code if your family could use a break, too. Save 15% on 2 or more nights at a DC-area Marriott this summer by clicking here.

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8 New Places To Eat Incredibly Well In The Washington, D.C., Area

Washington, D.C.’s vibrant restaurant scene has been growing at a dizzying pace for the past few years — and it shows no signs of slowing down, as big-name chefs and promising up-and-comers alike have unveiled a flurry of high-profile projects this spring. Here are eight notable new spots to check out in and around the nation’s capital.

1. Peter Chang
After being chased for years by chowhounds from restaurant to restaurant, and then opening eateries in southern Virginia and Atlanta, Peter Chang finally sets up shop in the D.C. area. Diners can feast on the specialties that made the once-elusive Szechuan chef a celebrated figure in contemporary Chinese cooking. Puffy scallion bubble pancakes, dry fried eggplant, mapo tofu and steamed pork buns all make an appearance. The dishes are often spicy, if not volcanic. So heed the chili-pepper icons on the menu, because the chef – thankfully! – doesn’t downgrade intense flavors for American palates. Chang fans have more to look forward to in the coming months, as he is set to open another casual restaurant in Rockville, Maryland, later this year, and there is also talk of a fine-dining restaurant in D.C.’s Navy Yard. 2503 N. Harrison St., Arlington, VA; peterchangarlington.com 

Finish reading this story on the Food Republic website now.

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Fishing — and making memories — with his dad in Costa Rica

“It wasn’t like this the last time I was here,” my father harrumphed as we cast our lines toward the shallows of Lake Arenal.

It was easy to believe him. We’d been fishing for more than two hours and there’d been nary a nibble. He had visited this lake in the northern reaches of Costa Rica nearly two decades earlier. His fond memories of bringing up more than his fair share of guapote, a cichlid fish with hypnotic spotting, and razor-toothed machaca had become one of his favorite tales to tell at family get-togethers, cocktail parties and anywhere else he could find an audience.

I didn’t mind that we hadn’t caught dinner yet. It was a sunny morning in early November of last year. A few wispy clouds punctuated the blue sky, and a slight breeze ruffled the lake, keeping us cool. At the far southeastern end, a wall of mist obscured Arenal Volcano, an active peak that had experienced its last major eruption in 1998.

I wasn’t sure that my father and I would ever have another day quite like this one. Although he’s the most active and adventurous 86-year-old I know, his hearing and eyesight have been slowly deteriorating in recent years, and he often gets dizzy spells — aftershocks from a decade-old stroke. Back home in Washington, my wife was eight months pregnant. Soon my responsibilities and schedule would change, making long trips like this one difficult.

“Let’s try trolling,” our guide, Sancho, suggested as he fired up the outboard motor at the end of his flat-bottomed johnboat.

He guided us away from the water’s edge until we were 100 yards out, then angled us parallel to the jungle-covered shoreline. As we cast our lines on opposite sides, I mentally crossed my fingers in the hope that we would catch something. I didn’t want this new adventure to end in disappointment for my father, who clearly wanted to add some new myths to his storytelling arsenal.

“I’ve got something!” I heard him exclaim behind me. Unfortunately, when he pulled in his line, he found an immature, six-inch machaca wriggling at the end of it.

Thankfully, his next strikes yielded a pair of two-pound fish that were tossed into an ice chest after a few quick smacks to the head. After another hour, I managed to add another to our haul. It wasn’t enough to brag about, but it would be enough for dinner.

Finish reading this story on the Washington Post website.

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Best Restaurants Near DC’s Convention Center

After a long, tiring day of crisscrossing Washington, DC’s massive convention center making connections and sealing deals, it’s easy to cop out when it comes to dining out. Resist the temptation to order room service or settle for a familiar fast-food concept. Since you’re smack dab in the middle of the up ‘n’ coming Shaw neighborhood and within walking distance of the bustle of Chinatown and Penn Quarter, there are plenty of fantastic dining options spanning diverse cultures. Whether you’re in the mood for Mediterranean, itching for Italian or have a yen for ramen, or you’re looking to explore the latest cutting-edge cuisine, or just want a stellar sandwich, these top 5 restaurants near DC’s convention center are sure to satisfy.

Daikaya 

Two is better than one. Located just a few minutes’ walk away, in nearby Chinatown, this bi-level eatery features a ramen joint on the ground floor and an izakaya (Japanese tavern) above it. The downstairs noodle house is bursting with energy. Pop songs blare, conversations burble and the compact open kitchen hums. There are 4 broth choices for your ramen — classic shoyu, soy-based shio, barley fortified mugi-miso and a surprisingly satisfying vegetarian option.

Boost your bowl with braised pork belly, marinated bamboo, seaweed or a nitamago (soft-boiled egg). If you’d rather enjoy cocktails and small plates instead, climb the stairs to the dimly lit, dark wood-lined second level. For a quick fix, order up and slam down a round of Dai-drops — sake spheres sunken in Sapporo beers. When it comes to dining, grilled oysters dressed with sake, skewers of fried pork and Brussels sprouts and miso-braised mackerel are all good choices.

Finish reading this story on the Travel Channel’s website now.

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Best Bites & Stellar Sips: Costa Rica

Getting to spend a week traveling around central Costa Rica with my dad was a rare treat. This bonding trip was a last hurrah before I become a father myself, so we tried to pack in as much as possible. In between spotting poison dart frogs during rainforest treks, fishing for guapote (rainbow trout) in a primordial lake at the center of an extinct volcano crater, and relaxing in natural hot springs, we had a chance to check out the local food scene. These are my favorite culinary moments from our adventuresome excursion.

Casem Coop

We had the best meal of the trip up in the cloud forest settlement of Monteverde. This tiny, backroom restaurant at the local artists cooperative serves well-executed comida tipica (traditional food) that’s equally fresh, flavorful, and filling. My arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) came with small salad and a glass of just-juiced guanabana (soursop), all of it simply delicious and well priced.

Passion Fruit Juice Bar & Coffee House

Stumbled across on an unassuming side street in the dusty tourist town of La Fortuna, this diminutive squeezed-to-order café came as a welcome surprise on a hot afternoon. I opted for a strawberry-mango smoothie, while Dad ordered a show stealing mango batido ­– fresh fruit blended with milk and ice – that I wanted to steal as soon as I’d tried a sip.

Tom’s Pan

Otherwise known as the German Bakery (not to be confused with the Austrian Bakery, which is just a few doors down the hill), this laidback operation in Nuevo Arenal is perfect for breakfast. Strong cappuccinos go well with a basket of the house-made rolls and hearty whole wheat toast, or maybe one of their winning cinnamon buns.

Café Monteverde

My favorite coffee in the world comes from one of the most difficult-to-reach roasters on the planet. Their rich dark roast is more than worth the three-hour drive over pothole-riddled dirt roads. A pick-me-up espresso was so outstanding that my 85-year-old father declared it was one of the best he had ever enjoyed in his entire life. And this is coming from a guy who has enjoyed dopios from the tip to the top of Italy.

Las Delicias

This unassuming gem in Nuevo Arenal offers an excellent representation of regional fare. Breakfasts were particularly memorable. I always ordered a casado – a plate full of scrambled eggs, gallo pinto (spiced rice and beans), fresh slices of avocado, a few fried plantains, fresh sour cream or a slab of fresh Costa Rican cheese, and one or two palm-sized tortillas.

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Best Bites: Hawaii, the Big Island

A recent trip to the Aloha State included a non-stop exploration of the local food scene. In this last of three posts (check out recs for Kauai and Oahu), I look back at our favorite gastro memories from Hawaii, the Big Island, which include furikake crusted ono, hot pepper cheese balls, and lilikoi mousse.

Big Island Peppers

My wife loves hot peppers and – though I don’t have her extreme tolerance – I do, too. So when we found a small stand in the Hilo farmers market selling Cheez Doodle style snack balls coated with fresh ground Hawaiian hot peppers, we couldn’t resist. The flavor morphed from artificial cheese to a smoky, yet floral, capsaicin burn that was so compelling that I had to contain myself from eating the whole bag in a single sitting.

CanoeHouse

Hawaiian master chef Alan Wong started out years ago at this beachside beauty at the Mauna Lani Bay resort before going on to build his own empire. Recently appointed chef de cuisine Allen Hess carries on the restaurant’s prodigious pedigree with an impressive new menu that highlights locally sourced proteins and produce. The furikake crusted ono with tempura fried green beans and ginger dressing was a tour de force – the plate went back practically licked clean.

Shipman House Bed and Breakfast

Every morning we stayed at this historic home-turned-inn overlooking Hilo, we were greeted with a colorful spread of fresh fruit (seen above). Much of it was grown on the property, and the platter often included guava, passion fruit, figs, several kinds of papaya, dragon’s eyes, and white pineapple. There were also thick slices of freshly baked Hawaiian sweet bread, which were the perfect AM treat after they were toasted up and slathered with local butter and homemade lilikoi butter.

Merriman’s Waimea

Chef-owner Peter Merriman is one of a core clutch of Hawaiian chefs helping define modern island cuisine. Fresh caught fish and locally raised beef star in many of the entrees, but it was the dessert course that I found the most fetching. The Hanaoka Farms lilikoi mousse has been on the menu since the restaurant opened and it’s easy to see why. Smooth, creamy, slightly tangy and not-too-sweet, it was a picture perfect finale.

Holualoa Inn

This jaw-droppingly gorgeous bed and breakfast is well situated on nearly 30 acres, where a rainbow of fruits and coffee grow in abundance. Every morning, this beautiful bounty is showcased at the meticulously crafted breakfasts courtesy of musician-turned-master-chef Brian Conaway. His apple banana pancakes topped with toasted coconut, bits of toasted macadamia nuts, coconut whipped cream and house-made lilikoi syrup were a highlight of the trip (and a reason why we can’t wait to return for a much longer stay).

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Best Bites: Kauai, Hawaii

A recent trip to the Aloha State included a non-stop exploration of the local food scene. In this second of three posts, I look back at our favorite gastro memories from “The Garden Isle,” where we enjoyed a porky burger, primo poke, and, of course, shaved ice.

The Feral Pig

Hawaii’s heritage hogs are showcased at this easy-to-miss roadside restaurant inside an unassuming mini mall. Though it’s not on the menu, the namesake burger – made with half Kauaian beef and half local pork ground together – is the top choice here. A close second is the Kauai-Cubano, which bookends Kalua pork, ham, house-made pickles, Swiss cheese, and onion-mustard between a soft, yet hearty, roll. Both go down well with a refreshing glass of the homemade ginger-lemonade. 

Hanalei Dolphin

This Hanalei institution deserves the considerable attention heaped upon it. For a more casual happy hour or a relaxed lunch, sit out on the lanai; grab a seat at the sushi bar if you’re super serious about your sashimi; dine inside the restaurant if you want to be in the shade. The beer battered fish tacos (made with the catch of the day) and the spicy tuna ahi poke (it’s not on the menu, but it’s available) are your two best bets, though you can’t go wrong with the sushi. 

Shave Ice Paradise

Good shave ice is impossible to beat on a hot Hawaiian day and this stand makes a superlative version. Get a “root beer float” by asking for a scoop of vanilla at the bottom, root beer syrup, and a snowcap of condensed milk on top. My favorite featured a hidden globe of coconut ice cream at the core with lilikoi and mango syrups drenching the finely razored ice (seen above).

Salt Pond Country Store

You could drive by this shop a thousand times without looking at it twice, but you’d be making a mistake. This mini-mart stocks a wide variety of simple, freshly made Asian foods packaged to go. The rice-packed yuba and the fried chicken were both standouts and only cost $5 total, making it the meal deal of the trip.

Hanalei Pizza

The stereo at this slapdash pizzeria bangs out the requisite reggae tunes non-stop, while the half-stoned hippie hipsters behind the counter turn out surprisingly quality pies. The crust here is made with coconut water and comes topped with everything from locally sourced Kalua pork and Maui onions to more unexpected items, such as sauerkraut and beets. Friendly warning: your pizza will probably take at least 30 minutes to make, so bring along your vacation reading or take the time to walk around the nearby shops.

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Best Bites: Oahu, Hawaii

A recent trip to the Aloha State included a non-stop exploration of the local food scene. In this first of three posts, I look back at our favorite gastro memories from “Hawaii’s Gathering Place,” which pleasantly surprised us at almost every turn.

Opal Thai Food

This food truck turned bustling strip mall gem may have been the best food we had our entire trip. As we were sucking down sweet ‘n’ strong Thai iced coffees, owner Opel Sirichandhra asked us what our preferences were, then proceeded to bring out a slew of winning Northern Thai dishes (consider it the North Shore’s budget-friendly version of Little Serow), including a particularly memorable pork larb that was equally sweet, spicy, and vinegary.

Nobu

It’s no surprise that when Nobu lists “Shaved Ice” on its dessert menu, it’s not going to be a straightforward take on the classic Hawaiian dessert. Instead, this picturesquely presented version is made with finely razored strawberry ice drizzled with mango syrup and condensed milk, then paired with blueberries and raspberries, and a scoop of dulce de leche ice cream.

Dat Cajun Guy

The idea of traveling ten hours to the land of mango shave ice, ahi poke, and just-harvested papaya only to dine on deep fried favorites from New Orleans seems a little ridiculous. But this freshly minted food truck with a near impeccable Yelp rating was a welcome discovery. Sweet potato fries with a tingly green onion aioli (seen above) and the crispy, crunchy catfish po boy were both spot on.

Prima

Most zas made on the islands are artless and disappointing, a cheap and easy way to fill the bellies of unadventurous mainlanders. Thankfully, this forward thinking Neapolitan pizzeria is upping the game. Hands down the best pizza I’ve ever had on any of the Hawaiian isles. Go for the Di Bologna, which stars an orangey, soft yolked egg at the center surrounded by pepperoncini, mortadella, and guanciale.

Waialua Sugar Mill

Most shave ice stands use commercially manufactured syrups (which I have no guff with, for the most part), but this boutique operation makes all of theirs from scratch. One particularly winning option uses locally grown chocolate and coffee and a dash of coconut syrup. For a lighter option, get the sweetly tangy lilikoi (passion fruit) with a creamy snowcap of condensed milk (seen above).

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