Thursday's Child: Destination San Jose, Costa Rica

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Destination: San Jose, Costa Rica

When we visited:  March 2011

Why to go:

Although we didn’t stay in the city of San Jose itself, we spent part of our holidays in the hills just north of the city.  We were thrilled that we did, because the beautiful hills and cooler days provided a wonderful counterpart to the warmer weather by the ocean.

What to see:

We hired a guide for a day, and Leo took us to the Poas volcano in the morning.  Although it was cloud-covered while we were there, we could just see the rim of this still-active volcano.  At an altitude of nearly 9000 feet, we enjoyed the short walk to the edge, seeing the hardy plants that live there (including Poor Man’s Umbrella and Monkey’s Tail fern).

In the afternoon, we shopped in the town of Sarchi, known for its crafts, particularly the hand-painted oxcarts typical of the region.  While we were in one shop, we watched an artisan painting a side of a cart with finesse.

If we’d stayed longer, we would have loved some of the other excursions.    Finca Rosa Blanca is a working coffee plantation, and they offer a tour of their farm.  I still regret that we didn’t have the chance to visit a school in the local community, too.

Where to stay:

The hotel itself was the reason we spent several days near San Jose, and it’s a decision we didn’t regret.  It really is one of the loveliest properties we’ve ever stayed at, set in the quiet countryside less than half an hour from the city airport.  But it seemed miles from anywhere.  Each evening we sat out on our terrace, watching the twinkling lights of San Jose in the valley below, before walking down the leafy path to the hotel restaurant.

The pool was just two minutes from our room, but completely hidden behind the foliage.  With a built-in waterfall and a hot tub on the upper deck, it was a wonderful place to relax and enjoy the sun.

We loved the philosophy of Finca Rosa Blanca as much as anything.  They are devoted to sustainable tourism, unlike many properties that pay it lip service for marketing purposes.  Glenn and Teri buy most of their supplies from local merchants and support several schools and environmental causes.  They also have a number of initiatives in place to protect the water supply and to leave as small a trace on the environment as possible.

Where to eat:

Although we had a delightful lunch out in the village of Sarchi, the food at Finca Rosa Blanca was incomparable.  We ate all of our breakfasts on the restaurant’s beautiful, leafy terrace.  One of my daughters swore by the French toast, but I loved the Costa Rican breakfast with rice and beans.  And all three dinners we ate there were terrific.  The fish specials every night were great, but the steak and pork on the menu were equally good.  And the chef very graciously prepared a plain pasta for my daughter with less-adventurous taste buds.

P.S. If you read my guest post on the i-escape blog, the photos that accompanied it were supplied by them (except for the one of me).  But the photos on this post were all taken by Andrew!

Guest blog

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

We just got back from holidays in Costa Rica and, although you’ll be reading about it here sometime, I’d love it if you read my guest post on the i-escape blog.  i-escape features some of the most dreamworthy properties around the world that I’ve seen, and whenever we go on holidays, I check their website to see if they recommend any hotels in the area.  That's what we did last summer when we stayed at Clos de Bellefontaine and Villa Fol Avril in Normandy, France.  We loved both of them. 

Sometimes I check out their website only to daydream.  I may never get to Tunisia or Bali.  But that doesn’t keep me from imagining what it would be like to stay at the Hotel Dar Said or Bambu Indah.

When I won a blogging contest at i-escape a few weeks ago, they offered me the chance to guest-write on their blog, as well as a reduced rate on my stay at one of their properties.  Needless to say, my comments are entirely my own opinions and aren’t influenced by either of their generous offers.

Take a look at my first of two blog posts on i-escape and see what we did in Costa Rica!

The Grad Dress

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Yesterday, I helped my youngest daughter buy her grad dress.

She isn’t graduating until June, but three of her friends had already bought theirs and she was anxious to get one of her own.  So she, her big sister and I hit the stores yesterday in search of the perfect dress.

Now I’m not much of a shopper.  Other than buying books, which I could do every day of my life, shopping makes me cranky.  The stores are too warm, I always seem to have too many things in my arms, and sometimes finding a helpful sales clerk is challenging.  In my ideal world, I’d have a personal shopper buy clothes on my behalf.  (In that world, I’d also have someone to look after my laundry.  But I digress.)

Shopping for a grad dress is different.  More than just an article of clothing, it marks a shift in my daughter’s life, a leap from girl to young woman.  And I truly loved being part of that.

I don’t know how my girls got to be so old.  This year I’m buying a dress for eighth grade grad; next year I’ll be buying a twelfth grade grad dress for her older sister.  When I look at pictures of them as toddlers and babies, it almost feels like I was a different person in those days. Back then, my thoughts were often completely wrapped up in their lives.  Things are still busy, of course, but as they get older, it’s part of my job to step back a little.  Always being there when they need me – like shopping for a grad dress – but giving them independence when that’s what they need.

Oh, and the dress?  I’m not allowed to post it, but it looks great!

Fortunately, it doesn’t matter how grown-up your family is.  Everyone, young and old, will love these cookies.  The only change I made to the original recipe was adding toffee bits, but I think they’d be great with or without. 

Crispy Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies
(adapted from Two Peas and Their Pod)

½ cup brown sugar
½ cup white sugar
½ cup softened unsalted butter
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup flour
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
1 cup oats (not quick oats)
1 ¼ cups Rice Krispies
1 cup chocolate chips
¾ cup toffee bits

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Combine butter and sugars in mixing bowl.  Beat until smooth.  On low, add in egg and vanilla extract.  Beat until combined.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda.  Slowly add to the butter mixture.  Stir in the oats, Rice Krispies, chocolate chips and toffee bits.  Avoid overmixing, which would crush the cereal.

Scoop dough into balls and place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.  Bake for 10 – 12 minutes.  Allow to cool for a minute on the cookie sheet before moving to a cooling rack.

Thursday's Child: Destination Rome

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Destination: Rome
The Roman Forum
When we visited: August 2009

Why to go:

Fabulous history, beautiful churches, great art.  And a sculpture that just might bite your hand off.

What to see:

You already know most of what you want to see.  If you love history, there's no better destination.  The Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill will make you appreciate the greatness of the Roman Empire.  The Vatican Museums’ Sistine Chapel is truly one of the great works of art, and St. Peter’s Basilica is both majestic and holy.
The great St. Peter's
Legend says if you throw a coin in Trevi Fountain, you’ll return to Rome someday. It worked for me – I did the first time I visited Rome in 1987, and I came back 22 years later.  Just to be sure, I tossed another coin in the fountain this time.  With any luck, I won’t have to wait 22 years before my next visit.

Have any of you seen the wonderful movie, Roman Holiday?  Starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, it’s the story of a princess who sees the city through the eyes of a newspaper reporter.  One of the places they visit is The Mouth Of Truth, a marble disc with a face carved into it.  According to legend (the Romans love their legends), if you stick your hand into the mouth and tell a lie, it will be bitten off.  I’m pleased to tell you that we returned from Rome with all our limbs intact.
The Pollock family recreates another great movie moment.
Where to stay:

Finding a reasonably-priced hotel in any big European city can be difficult.  We were lucky to stay at the Caesar House Residenze Romane, which offered a family room at a great rate.  This centrally-located hotel is a couple of minutes’ walk to the Forum and the Colosseum and, like many European hotels, includes breakfast in the price. 

Where to eat:

When in Rome, you must try the gelato.  Gelato is like super-creamy ice cream, and we sampled our way through any number of gelaterias in Rome. San Crispino is reputed to serve the best, although we loved Tre Scalini in Piazza Navona.  Really, it’s splitting hairs.  It’s all delicious.


Sunday, March 20, 2011
It was a busy morning.  I was cleaning the house and doing some baking (note: this was before Lent started!).  I had a handyman in, working on the bathroom.  My youngest daughter called at lunch to ask if she could have two friends over.

When they got here, the three of them pulled out their cell phones so they could compare ring tones – all at the same time. The hammering from the bathroom was challenged and defeated by the decibels at the kitchen table.  Three competing ring tones were analyzed – and modified, and retested – over the pasta. The handyman went out to his truck – ostensibly to eat his lunch, but I suspect he couldn’t hear himself hammering over the symphony in the kitchen.

And then I served these cookies. Phones were set aside, and the kitchen became an oasis of silence, broken only by an occasional guttural sound of gastronomic appreciation.

This recipe comes from the March issue of Bon Appetit magazine.  It makes a fairly small batch of cookies (I got fourteen) which is a good thing, because they’re best served on the day they’re made.  Four to the handyman and six to the hungry musicians left just four for dinner that night.

Fudgy Meringue Cookies
(adapted from Bon Appetit)

1 cup chocolate chips, divided
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, divided
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 large egg whites, room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

Preheat oven to 350°F.
Place 1/2 cup chocolate chips in small microwave-safe bowl. Cook in 15-second intervals until chocolate softens; stir until melted and smooth. Cool chocolate to lukewarm, about 10 minutes. Whisk 1/2 cup sugar, cocoa, and cornstarch in small bowl to blend.

Using electric mixer, beat room-temperature egg whites, vanilla, 1/8 teaspoon salt, and cream of tartar in medium bowl until soft peaks form. Add remaining 1 cup sugar in 4 additions, beating just to blend after each addition. Continue to beat until meringue is thick and glossy like marshmallow creme, about 2 minutes longer. Beat in cocoa mixture. Fold in melted chocolate, then 1/2 cup chips.

Drop batter by rounded tablespoonfuls onto prepared sheets, spacing 3 inches apart. Bake cookies 7 minutes. Reverse sheets and bake until dry-looking and cracked, about 6 minutes. Cool cookies on sheets 5 minutes. Transfer cookies to racks and cool completely.

Thursday's Child: Destination St. John's

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Destination: St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada

When we visited: August 2007

Why to go:

St. John’s is the capital city of what is arguably the most unique area in North America.  Newfoundlanders are justifiably proud of their gorgeous province and their unique customs.

What to see:

Jelly Bean row, a series of unique and colourful homes, is one of the most photographed images in the city.
"The Rooms" is home to both a museum and art gallery, with a beautiful collection and lovely view of the harbour.  (If your visit works up an appetite, treat yourself to one of their cherry white chocolate cookies.)
Signal Hill was the site of the first transatlantic wireless broadcast, received by Guglielmo Marconi.  But more than that, it’s a gorgeous walk.  We took the circular trail for stunning views of the ocean and surrounding area.
And if you’re traveling with kids, don’t miss the Fluvarium.  It’s a museum connected with Memorial University, and the lowest level looks straight into the river.

Where to stay:

Leaside Manor Heritage Inn was a lovely bed and breakfast just a five minute drive from most of the sights.  Breakfasts were delicious (I should mention that breakfast service was quite slow, although after checking out, where this inn receives a #1 ranking in St. John’s, I’m guessing they’ve got those issues ironed out.)

Where to eat

We had two favourite restaurants in St. John’s.  Ches’s Fish and Chips is a St. John’s institution; this year they’re celebrating their 60th anniversary.  Unsurprisingly, we opted for the fish and chips for lunch, although you could also order shrimp, scallops or chicken.  Ches’s serves good, basic food in a fun atmosphere.  

Blue on Water was also great, but a totally different experience.  We ate at this lovely restaurant twice, because our first brunch there was so outstanding.  The banana pancakes were to die for, and Andrew said his omelet was one of the best he’s had.  We got a side order of traditional Newfoundland toutons (essentially fried bread dough).

Bad News, Good News

Saturday, March 12, 2011
Which do you want to hear first – the good news or the bad news?

Actually, the good news won’t make much sense without the bad, so that’s where I’ll start.  I’ve decided to give up baking for Lent.

Every year, I try to forgo something that I love for the forty days leading up to Easter.  The purpose is to make a sacrifice that I’ll miss in my daily life.  Most years I go without dessert, or some subset of dessert.

This year I decided to do something slightly different.  I love baking, and not being able to do that for six weeks will be something I dearly miss.  (Note that we won’t be eating out every night, because cooking is still okay.)  I’m hoping the creativity that I normally pour into my baking can be funneled into writing instead.

Now here’s the good news.  I did a burst of baking just before Lent started, and I have more than enough recipes and photos to carry me through.

That didn’t prevent me, on the first day of Lent, from standing wistfully in the middle of the cookbook section of my local Chapters store, gazing at the forbidden recipes.  Mercifully, I was able to leave the store with my integrity intact.  But it makes me think the next month and a half will be difficult.

There was nothing difficult about these muffins.  They were the best bran muffins I’ve ever made.  They were moist and tasted delicious on their own, as well as with honey or jam.  Don’t miss the step of lowering the oven temperature as soon as you put the muffins in the oven.  That’s what gives them a nice crispy exterior without drying them out.

By the way, when one of our girls asked Andrew what he was giving up for Lent, he said “Your mother’s baking.”  What a hero.

Honey-Raisin Bran Muffins

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups wheat bran
1 ½ cups raisins
1/3 cup wheat germ
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup firmly packed brown sugar
½ cup honey
1 cup plain yogurt
½ cup buttermilk
2 tsp vanilla extract
3 large eggs, beaten

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Line 18 standard muffin cups with paper liners, or use silicon muffin tins. 

In a bowl, stir together the flour, bran, raisins, wheat germ, baking soda, baking powder and salt.

In another bowl, cream together the butter, brown sugar and honey until fluffy.  Beat in the yogurt, then the buttermilk and vanilla, until well blended and smooth.

Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and add the creamed mixture and the eggs.  Beat just until evenly moistened.  The batter will be thick and slightly lumpy.  Do not overmix.

Spoon the batter into each muffin cup, filing it level with the rim of the cup.

Transfer the filled pans to the oven and immediately reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees.  Bake 18 – 22 minutes.  A toothpick inserted into the centre of a muffin should come out clean.  Let the muffins cool for at least 15 minutes before turning out of the tins.

Thursday's Child: Destination Atacama

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Terrace at the Tierra Atacama Hotel

DestinationAtacama Desert, Chile

When we visited: March 2009 (which, in the southern hemisphere, is late summer/early fall)
A desert hike
Why to go:  

The Atacama Desert was the best adventure trip our family has ever taken.  Every day was completely different from the last, and we had a real sense of exploring the unknown.
El Tatio geysers

What to see:

We stayed in the Atacama desert for four nights, and barely scratched the surface of available activities.  We relaxed in hot springs; we hiked through a moonscape; we watched the sun set over salt flats.  One morning we woke early to drive into the mountains and see an active geyser (at an elevation of 4200 metres above sea level).  Two of us went horseback riding while the other two hiked a river bed.  We swam in a salt lake and visited two tiny nearby villages (Tokonao and Machuca). 

If we’d had longer, we might have biked Devil’s Glen, climbed the Toco volcano, seen local petroglyphs or gone bird watching.
Atacama salt flats
 Where to stay:

We were fortunate to stay at the wonderful Tierra Atacama Hotel right after it opened, when they were offering special introductory rates.  If we were to go again, it would definitely be a splurge, but I’d think seriously about it.  This lovely hotel, simply decorated in a Chilean style, offered volcano views through the picture window at the end of our room.  Several evenings we relaxed by a firepit on the terrace before entering the dining room for dinner.

Where to eat:

Meals at the hotel were included in our rate, and they were unbelievable.  Food was fresh, local and flavorful.  Much of it was grown in Tierra Atacama’s own gardens.  And the sensational fruit, and fruit desserts, were among the best I’ve ever eaten.

100 Follower Giveaway Winner

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Thanks for all of your comments on my 100 Follower Giveaway post.  The random number generator gave me number 7, and I'm happy to say that the winner is Kirsten, of Comfortably Domestic.  Congratulations to Kirsten, and check out her blog if you have a chance.  She always makes me laugh with her stories of everyday life.

And thanks to all of you for following my musings.  It means so much to me that you like to read what I write!

Oscar Night

Sunday, March 6, 2011
Poster from the 83rd annual Oscar awards

Is there any night like the Academy Awards?  Great Oscar moments live forever.  One of my favourite moments from the past was Roberto Benigni walking over the backs of the chairs in the audience to get to the front.  If I won an Oscar award, I'd be that excited too.  And who'll forget some of the many other magical moments: Sally Field exuding, "You like me, you really like me!"; Bjork wearing a swan dress, or Cher wearing her black Bob Mackie; Jack Palance doing one-armed pushups; and James Cameron, shouting "I'm the King of the World!"

Great moments aside, I sometimes wonder why I love the Academy Awards so much.  I don’t see many movies – this year I watched a pathetic three of the ten nominees.  (At least those three, Inception, The King’s Speech, and The Social Network, were all terrific.)  I don’t follow the lives of celebrities, other than what pops up on my Internet home page.  And what I know about fashion is limited to blue jeans, except on days when I’m writing, when it’s limited to sweat pants.

So why are the Academy Awards such a big deal?  A big part of it is the Oscar party.  Every year a group of us gets together at Marlie’s house.  We weigh in on beauty (yeah, Natalie Portman!) and fashion (yeah, Halle Berry!)  We praise the excellent speeches; is it any surprise that a writer (David Seidler, for The King’s Speech) had the best one of the evening?  We complete our Oscar pick sheets obsessively, hoping to win the Grand Prize – this year, it was a copy of the book The Movies That Matter.

Great girlfriends are wonderful in so many ways.  My friend Kim showed up toward the end of the ceremony, after helping her 17-year old son celebrate his birthday.  And in addition to her loyal friendship, one of the best things Kim has given me is this recipe.  These squares, taken from Fare For Friends, a cookbook to raise money for a women's shelter, are one of my favourites.  The sweetness of the apricot is a perfect balance for the tartness of the lemon.  Why don’t you make a batch of these for your girlfriends?

Apricot Squares
(from Fare For Friends)

2/3 cup dried apricots
2/3 cup water
1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup flour (first amount)
2 egg yolks
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup coconut
1/2 cup flour (second amount)
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder


1/4 cup butter
2 cups icing sugar
juice of one lemon

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.  Line a 9" square cake pan with parchment paper.
Cut apricots in small pieces and simmer with the water for 15 minutes or until all of the water is absorbed.  
Meanwhile, mix butter, sugar and 1 cup flour and press into prepared pan; bake for 15 minutes.  Remove from oven and increase oven temperature to 325 degrees.  Beat 2 egg yolks and combine with brown sugar, coconut, 1/2 cup flour, salt, baking powder, apricots and any remaining cooking water.  Spread mixture on crust and bake for 25 minutes.
Once squares have cooled, combine butter, icing sugar and lemon.  Spread on squares.

Thursday's Child: Destination Prague

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Recently I’ve had a few people ask me for advice on upcoming trips.  They’ve been looking for more practical information than I usually give – where to stay, where to eat, and some of the highlights of a particular location.  I’ve decided to add an occasional feature to my Thursday posts, where I’ll share some of that information.  Keep in mind that I’m only reporting on what one family has seen, and you’re always best to consult a guide book for a complete list of highlights.  Also, hotels and restaurants may change over time, so a quick visit to should tell you if the establishment is still open and still operating at the level we experienced.

Destination Prague

When we visited: August 2006

Why to go: 

It’s a wonderful, old European city that’s full of charm and romance.  The Charles Bridge is iconic.  This lovely bridge is lined with statues of the saints that are so eloquent, you feel that if they could speak, they would whisper the wisdom of the ages.
On Charles Bridge
What to see:

The focal point of Prague is the Charles Bridge.  It's busy during the day, and fills up in the evening with street performers.  But I loved it early in the morning, when it was still and silent, and we had it almost to ourselves.

Prague Castle is to the west side of the bridge, up a steep hill.  The castle complex is always crowded, but definitely worth seeing.  Golden Lane is a little street of 16th century homes built inside the castle walls, and Franz Kafka lived at one of them.   
Pinkas synagogue, in Josefov
On the east side of the bridge are Wenceslas Square and the Old Town.  We loved visiting the Jewish quarter (Josefov), Pinkas synagogue and the old Jewish cemetery -- very poignant and powerful.  The myth of the Golem originated here, and knowing that story added so much atmosphere to our walk.  

We also spent a lovely afternoon at Petrin Hill.  It was a fun walk there and back for the girls, and provided a beautiful view of the city and river.  
Church of St. Nicholas
Where to stay: 

We stayed at the charming hotel, The Golden Wheel.  Located in the quieter Mala Strana district, we were a short walk from the bridge that connected to the more bustling Old Town.  (However, if you’re not a walker, be aware that it was a steep uphill trek at the end of each day.)  Breakfasts were lovely, and our room had a sweet little loft for the girls to sleep in.

Where to eat:

Having kids, we don't always eat at fine dining establishments!  But we had three great dinners in Prague.  Our first night, we ate at Malteskych Vytiru (I'm missing about five accents, but it translates as "At Knights of Malta").  They serve Czech meals in a brick-lined cellar, and that's where we learned to pronounce our first few Czech words.  The second night we ate at Hergetova Cihelna.  It had a magnificent view of the Charles Bridge, and our hotel helped us make reservations that would coincide with sunset.  And probably the best meal we had was at Square, close to the Church of St. Nicholas.

Racing Like a Pronoun

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Most of us have at least one song that we thought we knew the lyrics to, only to realize we were singing the wrong words.  I do it all the time, but one of my strangest came from my favourite album, Boxer by The National.  The song is “Racing Like a Pro” and it describes someone who’s miserable in his middle class job and middle class life, and doesn’t know how to escape it.  The real lyrics are:

“Your mind is racing like a pro now
Oh my god it doesn’t mean a lot to you”

And of course the first time I listened, I heard line one as “Racing like a pronoun”.  I’m a writer and probably think about pronouns more than the average person, but still?  Do pronouns race?  If so, is Nathan Detroit placing bets on them?

Everyone in my family has their own misheard lyrics.  My husband listened to The Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden” for years, including the line “Yeah, all your sickness/ I can suck it up”.  Except his personal variation was “All your sickness/ I’m a sunken duck”.  True story.

And my youngest daughter told me about one of her own.  In “Viva La Vida”, she thought “Now in the morning I sleep alone” was actually “In the morning I sleep til noon”.  She couldn’t figure out why that was supposed to be a bad thing.

What about you?  What’s your most entertaining misheard lyric?

And if you haven’t entered my 100 Follower Giveaway yet, you’ve still got a chance!