Barcelona, Spain

Hola from Spain! So I’ve attempted to finish this post about Barcelona on a number of occasions, and alas here I am, writing it as I wait at the airport for our flight to London, which has been delayed. A post on the second half of our Spain leg will have to wait. 

First off, let me just put it out there. Whenever you tell someone that you’re going to Barcelona, the thing that most often comes up is a story about one pickpocket experience or another. Thankfully, the policia has ramped up their security around the city, especially in places like La Ramblas. We’ve been pretty vigilant and my parents let us borrow their pacsafe backpack, so all has been well!

All that aside, Barcelona is truly a beautiful city and we’ve really enjoyed getting to know it over the last two days. We took a red eye flight (such a good idea – Andy slept really well) and arrived into the airport around 12:30 on Sunday. After no more than two words with the customs officer, we were released into Spain and all its glory. 

  
On our first day, we were a little lacking in sleep (good movies on the plane get us every time…) so we didn’t stay out too late. However, we did manage to get in a pedicab tour of the old city (loved meandering through narrow streets and into the Parc de la Ciutadella), a quick pop in to see the ruins at El Born, and some dinner. It was also a Sunday, so pretty much everything was closed anyways. 

 

We stayed at Le Meridien right on Las Ramblas, which was a perfect home base for us as we explored the city. Its proximity to Placa de Catalunya was perfect, and though we’d never stayed there before, it had an SPG familiarity that we have come to look for whenever we travel. 

Andy is a huge hit everywhere we go. He is not shy at all and he smiles at everyone who engages him (and for those who don’t engage him, he takes the initiative). On the bus turistic, he made friends with the other passengers, and when he wasn’t doing that, he tried to eat all the handholds (gross). 

  
Undoubtedly, having spent only one full day in Barcelona, we were able to see but a little portion of the city, but here are a few of the highlights from our trip so far.

Eat

bacoa universitat – just a few steps from Placa de Catalunya, this burger bar has a very North American feel to it, but with the most delicious burgers ever. Highly recommend the one with manchego cheese and caramelised onions!

Carmelitas – best tapas ever. We ordered all these seafood tapas and every single one was delicious. So was their tiramisu. If we had discovered this place earlier we may have had all our subsequent meals here. 

  

See

On our one full day, we opted for the hop on hop off (also purchased ahead of time online for 10% off) to bring us around to the sights. It was a beautiful day and we thoroughly enjoyed that open-air, rooftop seating. Plus if we sat in the right spot, we could see our stroller which needed to be stored on the main floor. They give you headphones for the onboard audio guide, through which you get more info about each of the places you’re passing. 

Sagrada Familia – I’d been here in 2007, but they’ve done quite a bit more work since then! We booked our tickets ahead of time (highly recommended) and opted not to get the audio guide. The entire structure awes you, and the way light is reflected into the cathedral is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Gaudi truly was a master architect inspired by nature. 

  
Montjuic – We paid for the teleferic (even with a 2€ discount it felt steep) and went for a walk at the top of the hill by the castle. We didn’t actually go into the castle, though one could for 5€/3€ (16-29 years. 

  
The best thing, really, is just walking around and enjoying the sights. There is so much to see and explore and so many little cafes that I wish I could while away my time in. Perhaps when we come to Spain next we will visit Port Vell and peruse some of the galleries and museums in the city. 

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Travel: Houston

I had never been to Texas before this trip. To be honest, we never had any reason to go. But now that we have, let me tell you – we really like Houston. Not on the same level that we like San Francisco, mind you, but let’s say that I would have no problem recommending a visit. Yes, the city is incredibly large and spread out (with very strange zoning laws I might add), but it is full of great things to do, places to see, and eateries to satisfy the largest range of palates.

STAY

When Kelvin and I travel in North America, we generally stay at an SPG property. I will have my part-time travel agent license for a few more months (random, I know) and Starwood Pro always offers amazing rates for us to try different Starwood hotels, so we tend to stick with them. Growing up, my family opted for more Best Western/Sleep Inn-esque accommodations. You know, the ones you would look through the CAA book to find (all my sister and I cared about was whether or not there was a pool). Alas, that will not be the case for Andy.

This time around, we opted to stay at the Westin Houston Downtown, which is SPG’s only property within downtown Houston. It’s a classic Westin, complete with that SPG scent that we have come to know and love. We don’t frequent hotel lobby bars, but this hotel had a nice one, if you’re into that. The workout room is small, but well-equipped, and despite being in the basement, I felt really comfortable spending some time there alone. Instead of packing our travel crib, we opted to use one of the hotel cribs. It was clean, safe, and Andy liked it. Kelvin had some trouble adjusting to Andy being in the same room, but by the second night he (Kelvin) was fine. We always look for accessibility wherever we stay, and this hotel was within a very comfortable walking distance of public transit. (photo cred below to trip advisor)

Westin Houston Downtown / 1520 Texas Avenue, Houston / website

PLAY

Though we weren’t in Houston for a very long time, we jammed a heck of a lot of activities in. Not far from our hotel was Discovery Green. This awesome 12-acre park downtown had a ton of programming, and we had a chance to check out the Discovery Green Flea (which unfortunately had items not exactly to our taste) and the Parks and Rec Marathon. Armed with a s’more grilled cheese for me and a gouda jam grilled cheese for Kelvin from The Golden Grill, with Andy asleep in our carrier, we lounged in the grass and watched one full episode. Perhaps if we weren’t staying at the airport hotel that night and didn’t have a 7:40 am flight the next day, we would have stayed for longer :)

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Another nearby attraction was Minute Maid Park. We had no intention of watching a game here, but due to a series of fortunate events involving a Blue Jays cap and scalpers (don’t worry, we actually bought our tickets at the box office. our seats were legit), we found ourselves at the Astros vs. Jays game Thursday night. It was awesome.

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The rest of the things we saw were a short light rail ride away in the Museum District. Our first stop was the Houston Zoo, touted as one of the top 10 zoos in America. I must agree – it was pretty awesome. Highlights? The elephant complex and the area co-habitated by the giraffes, zebras, and ostriches. We opted to not bring the stroller with us, so Andy was in the carrier the whole time. Needless to say, he got hot real fast. Thank goodness for the “chill zones” – yes, they were actually designated as such on the zoo map – throughout the zoo, which we sought out for much needed respite every 30 minutes or so. For $14 (general admission is $16, but we got $2 off with our metro cards), this attraction was well worth it. What’s better than $2 off? Free! If you happen to be in Houston on the first Tuesday of the month between September and May, admission is comped. Alas, we were not.

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But not to worry, we did get our share of free admissions. Thursdays seem to be a hot day for free admission. From 2-5, the Houston Museum of Natural Science opened its doors free of charge (to the permanent collection only), and we spent a few hours there, 45 minutes of which was spent breastfeeding in a dimly lit corner by the washrooms. HMNS advertises itself as one of the most attended museums in the US, but I’m not sure I would necessarily pay to visit it. Their Ancient Egypt exhibit is extensive, their palaeontology collection is impressive, and they do have a funky chemistry section in the basement, but I think I just don’t have the patience for that sort of museum.

What I DO have patience for are interactive museums. In that regard, the Children’s Museum of Houston truly did not disappoint. I can totally see why it was voted the No. 1 Children’s Museum in America. There were so many exhibits there that even Kelvin and I were excited to participate in, and as a teacher, I really appreciate the way that each space was meant for children to really explore and learn. They have this section called Kidtropolis (very clearly sponsored by Bank of America) in which each kid gets an allowance to use in navigating this little city complete with a bank, grocery store, stock exchange, clinic, and more! They also have a dedicated makerspace for tinkering, testing, and experimenting, as well as a whole area for tots on the second floor. At 2 months, Andy was still too young to really make good use of the space (save for this one section in which you could sit and listen to lullabies), but if he had been able to grasp things (and if he had been awake), I would have been very comfortable spending a good amount of time with him in the tot zone.

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Here’s a short clip of what Kelvin learned.

Last but not least, you can’t visit Houston without spending a bit of time in Hermann Park (especially if you look at how many of the attractions below are actually around or in Hermann Park). We would have loved to catch an outdoor concert at the Miller Outdoor Theatre, but alas, our schedule did not allow for it. However, we did have lunch there at Pinewood Cafe and rode the 20-minute long train ride ($3.25 pp). Good times.

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Children’s Museum of Houston / 1500 Binz Street, Houston / website
Discovery Green
 / 1500 McKinney Street, Houston / website
Hermann Park / 1700 Hermann Park Drive, Houston / website
Houston Museum of Natural Science
/ 5555 Hermann Park Drive, Houston / website
Houston Zoo
 / 6200 Hermann Park Drive, Houston / website
Minute Maid Park / 501 Crawford Street, Houston / website

DINE

Hands down one of the most important thing of all when we travel – good food. Prior to any trip, I tend to spend (a long) time scouring websites and urbanspoon and yelp to figure out where we should eat. This trip was no exception. I’m happy to report that almost all of the places we visited were home runs.

The very first night, we ate at Pondicheri in Upper Kirby. The thalis (their rendition of a sampling platter) were good to get a sense of what they offer, but nothing to write home about. What was delicious were their goat samosas, though perhaps a bit steep in price, at $9 for 2. The filling was moist and everything was well-integrated. Also, they have a bake lab there (who doesn’t love baked goods?) and we had an absolutely delicious coconut mint cookie. Funny story – we actually just needed change for our bus fare back downtown, but we got this sweet surprise in return!

Breakfast was a real winner on this trip. The first day we ate at Honeymoon Cafe and Bar, an offshoot of Boomtown Coffee. Their breakfast menu is limited to four selections, but that’s really all you need. Kelvin got the soft-scrambled eggs on rye and I got the breakfast BLT. Can you believe I had never had a BLT before this? What can I say? I don’t really like beefsteak tomatoes. Luckily, this BLT was amazing. The bacon was perfectly crispy, and the tomato was warm. I inhaled it (as gracefully as I could with a child strapped to me) and may or may not decide to leave that as my one and only BLT experience.

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The next morning, we ventured down to what seemed like an industrial area, to a surprisingly large restaurant called Weights + Measures. This place came as a recommendation from a blog that we follow, which had the coolest vibe. One section of the restaurant and bar looked like it was straight out of the 1950s, while the main seating area had a warm, but modern feel.

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I ordered one of the most scrumptious breakfast sandwiches I have ever eaten – with peanut butter, nutella, bacon, bananas and egg. I must say, I was skeptical of the restaurant’s decision to marry a classic nutella toast sandwich with regular savoury breakfast foods, but it totally worked. Plus it looked really pretty. Kelvin got the mushroom toast egg sandwich after reading in Houstonia that it was one of the best breakfast sandwiches in Houston. It was equally delicious as my sandwich, but much more savoury.

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At the end of the meal, our bill came in a cassette tape holder (is that what you call them?). So retro. What a great use for something that is virtually obsolete. Throwback to when I had cassette tapes. I still remember the track list on my Spice Girls tape. Third song was “Too much” – my favourite. Good times.

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Before heading out to catch our bus, we couldn’t help but stop in at their bake shop, Slow Dough, to try a few things. Lately, I have developed a penchant for the pain au chocolat at Pan Chancho back home, so naturally that’s what I got. Even though I waited for a while to eat it, it was still heavenly. Flaky, chocolatey goodness and everything that a pain au chocolat should be.

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In the same vicinity is this little place called Tacos A Go Go. A half service little hole-in-the-wall, this place dished out the best chips and salsa we’ve had in a while. Our dinner cost us just over $20 and it was fully satisfying. We got a smattering of tacos so we could try a whole bunch. The carne guisada tacos were flavourful, but the winner for me hands down was pork guisada taco. The spice and kick was on point, and the corn tortillas were as they should be. I also tried the grilled fish, but that was a no for me – I’ve definitely had much better fish tacos than the one I had there.

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Of course, you can’t travel to Texas and leave without having some good ‘ol BBQ. The evening before we left, we consumed a delicious cornucopia of meats and sides at Goode Company on Kirby. Kelvin’s cousin (whose little guy is only 3 days older than  Andy) and husband live in the Houston area, so it was really nice to be able to share this meal with them. Following their lead, we ordered a two meat dinner (with sausage and ribs) as well as a stuffed potato with brisket. The food was delicious. Plus they have a sweet outdoor eating area with picnic tables that gave us a chance to experience that Houston humidity one last time before returning to temperate Ontario :)

There are still numerous places that we would like to try in Houston, including the steakhouse that was right next door to the Westin, but that will have to wait for another trip!

Goode Co. BBQ / 5109 Kirby Drive, Houston / websiteGoode Company Barbeque on Urbanspoon
Honeymoon Cafe and Bar / 300 Main Street, Houston / website /The Honeymoon Cafe & Bar on Urbanspoon
Pondicheri Cafe / 2800 Kirby Drive, Houston / website / Pondicheri on Urbanspoon
Tacos A Go Go / 3704 Main Street, Houston / website / Tacos a Go-Go on Urbanspoon
Weights + Measures / 2808 Caroline Street / websiteWeights + Measures on Urbanspoon

We also spent a day or so out in Katy for Kelvin’s work conference which, coupled with terrible weather, was just a smidge above blasé. We went and walked Katy Mills the first night we got in, and left feeling quite a bit more depressed than when we entered. It is in serious need of a facelift and some better stock in their clothing stores. Needless to say, we will not be returning to Katy in the future if we can avoid it. Thankfully, the trip to Katy didn’t end on a sour note. We had an awesome driver – Ernesto – who brought us from the Westin to Katy, and he returned to bring us to pick up our rental car. A pretty young guy, he is from Cancun and training to be a commercial pilot. Something about him made us feel completely comfortable. If you’re ever in Houston and need a taxi, let us know and we can point you his way :)

Final tip for those of you travelling with kiddos – if you can manage it, bring your own car seat when you’re travelling and anticipate being in a car for more than just one or two trips. We had a bit of a hassle trying to get the one we rented with our car to feel secure, plus it tacked on another 30 minutes logistically because we had to wait of the personnel to get it, among other things. I think Andy would have much preferred his usual seat.

Anyways, our next planned trip is to Tennessee this July, so the itinerary planning has most definitely begun. Until next time!

a fall summer in ottawa

spent the weekend with my family in ottawa. the weather was absolutely GORGEOUS, and we settled in nicely as we arrived saturday afternoon. we always stay at the westin in ottawa (great location, love the brand), and this time we had a stunning view of wellington street as opposed to our usual view down into the rideau centre. it inspired me to sketch. here’s my (not to scale) take on the heart of wellington at the canal.

our family has always been a very go-go-go type of family when we’re on vacation. lately, though, we have taken to slowing down and just enjoying each other’s company. this holiday was no exception to that. some good food (cupcakes at thimble cakes, dinner at side door and at social), some good wandering (at gatineau park and in the market), and some good learning (at the diefenbunker).

all in all, i have renewed my love for ottawa (which waned following a few visits with below average food and cold temperatures). i will hopefully be returning shortly…