Monday, December 31, 2007

So long 2007

It's been an interesting year--the first full year without my father in my life. If I learned one thing this year, it's to take action. If there's something you have always wanted to do, there's no sense in waiting, because the sooner you get started, the better. Being "ready" is totally overrated and irrelevant to a good outcome.

I'm most proud of having successfully met the National Novel Writing Month Challenge in November, and I hope to get my manuscript in shape to sub this year.

No, scratch that. I WILL sub the manuscript in 2008. No waiting. The time is now.

Here's to a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2008!

photo by RichYak...thanks honey!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Making Pesto

In preparation for Christmas Eve tomorrow, I taught my middle daughter how to make pesto sauce. She did such a great job, we ended up making another batch to bring to Christmas dinner on Tuesday.

Finished Kitchen pics

's done, and right in time for Christmas Eve!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Welcome Winter

My husband Rich took this photo a few hours ago. He went out in search of a bald eagle, and as luck would have it, he just happened to find one!

Gearing up for Christmas Eve

The kitchen is done! Huzzah!

It looks absolutely will be posted soon.

In the meantime, I've been busily preparing for my big Christmas Eve shindig. Every year, I host The Feast of the Seven Fishes, which is an Italian tradition that my paternal grandmother used to host. After she passed away, I decided to keep it going. My mom still does the big Christmas Day dinner, but Christmas Eve is all mine!

Here's a sneak peak at this year's menu:

Hot & Cold Appetizers
Raspberry & Brie Fillo rolls
Mushroom bites w/roasted garlic & olive oil
Pastry bites w/carmelized onions and feta cheese
Assorted mini-quiches (mushroom & cheese, artichoke & cheese, spinach Florentine)
Crab cakes

Assorted cheeses (cheddar, provolone, gorgonzola, asiago)
Crackers & Italian Flatbread
Red & Black caviar
Anchovies w/capers

Shrimp Cocktail
Fresh mozzarella w/cherry tomatoes and basil

First course:
Oyster stew
Homemade bread

Salad course:
Venetian Seafood Salad

Sorbet course:
Lemon sorbet

Main course:
Stuffed clams
Broiled lobster tails
Black & White Fettucine tossed w/garlic, butter & olive oil
Grilled artichoke hearts in olive oil

Dessert course:
Assorted individual desserts from Bindi (berry-topped Crème Brulee, chocolate mousse, Coppa Mascarpone, Tiramisu)
Coffee and cordials

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Backsplash done!

Fernando of Aisoni Tile was here bright and early this morning, and finished up the backsplash. It turned out great!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Backsplash, part one

This isn't a very good picture (it was taken with my cell phone) but it'll give you an idea of how the backsplash is turning out. Tomorrow, once the grout is done, I'll take some better shots and post those. In the meantime, here's one more:

Sunday, December 9, 2007

O' Christmas Tree

Christmas Tree 2007

A morning visitor

This visitor came by this morning while we were having our coffee. He had 3 other friends with him, but he was the only one willing to pose.

Tile and Glass choices

These are the tiles that will comprise the decorative backsplash, which is being installed at the end of next week:

The deco tile in the center costs $22 apiece. Needless to say, we'll be using those sparingly! The small square mosaics were also used in the flooring, in 3 x 3 increments.

You see just a bit of the granite countertop material peeking through underneath the tiles. We chose a Terracotta Bordeaux from Spain. The granite is set to be installed on December 12th...we might just make it in time for Christmas Eve!

We were planning to use a beautiful stained glass design for the glass front cabinets, but the prices were wayyyyyy too high (we're talking thousands of dollars PER panel). Instead, we went with a simple "waffle glass" design. I like it because it adds a 3-dimensional element, allows the glassware in the interior of the cabinets to show through, but is still opaque enough to cover for me if the cabinets get messy.

Here's a small sample:

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Day 50: Cabinets nearly complete

A wide shot of the new kitchen. I love the way the island is turning out, and all of the decorative elements we've incorporated into the design.

The new stove area, with mantle

Most of the appliances have been slid into place, although only the refrigerator is plugged in. We still need to have the plumber hook up the ice maker, but it's great just to be able to keep containers of milk and some snacks up here on the main level.

The carpenters are doing a great job with all of the finishing details, particularly the mouldings for the mantle and island. They'll be back on Monday to finish up.

My computer desk area, which will also double as a serving area when the laptop is stowed away

Here's the wall behind the island. The microwave convection oven will go into that cutout area

The sink area

Monday, December 3, 2007

Day 48: A big day for the kitchen

This was the busiest day we've had yet for our kitchen remodel. We had two carpenters here installing the cabinets, an electrician finishing up some more outlets, the painters adding some fresh color to the walls, and the contractor making some repairs to the dining room ceiling where our bay window had a leak. Workers everywhere!

Friday, November 30, 2007

I did it! NaNoWriMo 2007

Whew! It was a long haul, but I managed to complete the challenge of writing a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. Thanks to all of the great participants at my writer's group who helped push me along to the finish line.

Tomorrow, we edit. Today, we celebrate!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Day 44: Installing cabinets

Things are starting to shape up! Tomorrow, the appliances arrive!!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Day 38: The cabinets arrive

Wow. I was not prepared for how many boxes we'd have. Installation starts Monday.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The new floor

Friday, November 16, 2007

Day 32: The flooring in progress

After taking a day to level the floor, the tile guys have started working their magic:

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The tile floor goes in tomorrow

Here's the main floor tile, which is being installed tomorrow

Here's the mosaic tile inset that will be used to accent every other floor tile, and also used for our backsplash:

Here's the decorative tile that will be the centerpiece of our backsplash

Pretty, no?

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Still going well...just busy as he**

Sorry I've been so neglectful of my blog lately...the kitchen renovation has been keeping me busy, and I've been participating in NaNoWriMo this month. I'll post some updates on the kitchen remodel and other stuff that's going on as time permits.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

So far, so good: Day 4

Well, the demolition was done in one day, so Thursday was spent framing out the new island and adjusting the size of the "window" between the kitchen and the family room. I also took a ride over to the cabinetry supplier, and picked out the drawer pulls and hardware. There weren't too many choices, because we're going with the ones that are included with the cabinets. We have so many cabinets going in, it would have been ridiculously expensive to get custom pulls. Maybe in a few years when I get bored with these? We shall see.

(pictures to be added soon--waiting for Rich to upload them)

Friday was a quiet day here, construction-wise. The plumber isn't scheduled to arrive till Monday, with the electrician to follow soon after. Our designer, Sheila, showed up Friday morning with Grant, our contractor, and they laid out the lighting plan. It was a good day to have some peace and quiet, because the kids were off from school.

So far, I have to say, this process has been very pleasant. Between the breakfast prep area I have set up in the dining room and the makeshift-kitchen area downstairs in the basement, I've still been able to cook and serve meals without much disruption.

Of course, we're only 4 days into this process. We'll see if I'm still singing the same tune next month!

The only headache we're experiencing is trying to find lighting that we like for over the kitchen table and above the island. We've finally narrowed it down to a few choices, and will hopefully get it all ordered by Monday.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Kitchen Renovation -- Day 1

We started the kitchen renovation on Wednesday. I've decided to chronicle the process here for the next few months, so let's start with the obligatory "Before" shots, accompanied by how the kitchen looks today, after the demolition.

Before shot of the kitchen

After demolition

Office Area "before"

Office area now

Sidewall before

Sidewall now

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Cakes for a Cause

Pink Velvet Cake

Just recently, I wrote a freelance article on Nancy Finkelstein, the co-founder of Carousel Cakes in Nanuet, NY. Last year, Carousel's Red Velvet Cake was featured in O Magazine as a favorite pick of Oprah and her staff, and Nancy donated of portion of the proceeds from the cake's sales to the American Heart Association.

This year, she's doubling the stakes for another worthy cause: the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Whenever you purchase a Pink Velvet Cake or Pink Ribbon Cheesecake from Carousel Cakes, $3 will be donated to the BCRF.

Pink Ribbon Cheesecake

Now you can have your cake, AND support a great cause. What better way to mark Breast Cancer Awareness month?

Carousel ships anywhere in the United States, and packs the cakes with dry ice and a lot of care to make sure that they arrive safe and sound.

It was a pleasure meeting Nancy, and helping to spread the word about her efforts to support breast cancer research.

The profile I wrote on her will be featured in an upcoming issue of Garden State Woman magazine. I'll let you know when it appears!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Tim Gunn's Guide to Style: 10 Essentials

I'm a little behind in my TV watching--too much going on with work and back-to-school stuff--but I finally had the chance to see the first two episodes of Tim Gunn's new show.

I love Tim Gunn, but his show does seem to be a ripoff of that other style-makeover show, What Not to Wear. His cohort, "supermodel" Veronica Webb, doesn't bring anything at all to the show. Seeing her go through the style-challenged victim's underwear drawer is creepy, and in my opinion, unnecessary. Why not just head straight for the lingerie shop and show them what works, rather than parade their existing sundries for all to see? Blech!

The show's openings are so contrived. We see the fashion victim out for a stroll with a loved one, blissfully unaware that Tim Gunn is about to phone and tell her to hurry home, because he's coming over in 20 minutes. You'd think the camera crew following her around would have been a tipoff, but no--there's lots of mock-panic and rushing home to find something nice to wear when Tim and Veronica arrive.

There's the obligatory "verbal contract" where Tim gets all stern and serious, staring down the participant with a warning of tough times ahead: a painful emotional journey that will wring the tears from your soul and turn them into a river of discarded clothing, mental turmoil, and fashion upheaval. Forced drama, anyone? Then he intones his ultimate words of wisdom, "We can't want you to succeed more than you do." ooooh....are you scared yet?

That's my biggest issue with the show: it tries to create angst where there isn't any. The thing I liked about Tim Gunn from his appearances on Project Runway was his ability to scare the crap out of the contestants with just a few pensive"hmmmms" and an arched eyebrow. He had a quiet confidence about him that is lacking in his new show.

The "let's go through your closet and ditch stuff" segment is way too reminiscent of What Not to Wear, even though this show claims that "the decisions are totally in [the participant's] hands." Again, he's got Veronica tagging along making useless comments.

Overall, I think the show isn't meeting its full potential. My least favorite part of this show (and What Not to Wear, too) is when we have to see the participant struggle as they go store-to-store, searching for new clothes and feeling totally clueless. I'd much rather see the participant go shopping with Tim at her side, pointing out what works and what doesn't, and why, right from the beginning.

The only truly helpful info that has emerged thus far is Tim Gunn's list of the 10 Essential Items Every Woman Should Have in Her Closet. They are:

1. Basic black dress
2. Classic dress pants
3. Classic white shirt
4. Blazer
5. Skirt
6. Cashmere sweater
7. Day dress
8. Jeans
9. Trenchcoat
10. Sweatsuit alternative

Bonus item: a special occasion dress or other high-end item that makes you look and feel fabulous

This is the kind of information that is lacking out there, and where I think Tim should focus his efforts in the show. Provide more tips about what looks don't work for anyone (horizontal stripes, pleated pants) and be less concerned with building hype and false drama. He doesn't need those tricks to get our attention, and should let his expertise be the true star of the show.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

God Bless Kathy Griffin

First, I want to congratulate comedian Kathy Griffin for winning an Emmy for her show, My Life on the D-List.

Next, I want to applaud her controversial acceptance speech, where she was quoted as saying the following:

"A lot of people come up here and thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus. Suck it, Jesus. This award is my god now."

Unfortunately, we won't be able to actually hear Kathy say these words, because her speech is being censored for the awards show telecast. As a Catholic, I have the utmost respect for my religion and my faith, but I think Kathy's comments were damn funny!

If anything, she was mocking those hypocritical rappers who get up there at awards shows and thank "Jesus Christ, My Lord and Savior" as they accept an award for a song or music video that refers to women as bitches and hos, and glorifies violence and exploitation. Or, how about someone like Mel Gibson, who makes a movie (The Passion of the Christ) that is lauded by the church, but then, when he's arrested for DUI, spews forth anti-Semitic rants and offensive tirades against women? Now THAT'S offensive.

You may not agree with Kathy Griffin's words, but they reflect her opinion, and she has every right to express that opinion.

Censorship: alive and well in 2007.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Britney on the VMAs


Friday, August 31, 2007

OJ's book: Sickening

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Behold, the cover for OJ Simpson's debacle of a book: IF I Did It. Could they have made the word "If" any smaller?

Don't think so.

How proud the Goldman Family must be, seeing their dead loved one's name splashed all over this disgusting piece of trash written by a unremorseful murderer. And now, thanks to all the pre-orders the book has received, Barnes and Noble announced yesterday that they've changed their minds, and WILL indeed stock the book in their stores.

What's that sound you hear? Oh, don't worry, it's just the very fabric of our civilized society being irreparably torn into a million pieces.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

At Sea Day #3 -- Houdini Highlights & More

Saturday, July 14, 2007 – AT SEA DAY

Our last At Sea day on this cruise—I can’t believe how fast the trip went! We slept in a bit, then I headed up to the Horizon Court and brought down some breakfast for Rich and the kids. Rich took them to Bingo at 11:15 while I tried in vain to find a quiet place to relax and write. Unfortunately, all of the nice chairs in the atrium lounges were full, so I ended up at the Painted Desert restaurant amidst the people playing bridge and board games. It wasn’t too noisy at first, but eventually got crowded, so I left and met up with Rich and kids.

After Bingo, we watched an ice carving demonstration on Deck 14, and then had a quick bite to eat before heading to magician Bernard Reid’s presentation, “Houdini: The Man, The Myth, The Magic.” It was FANTASTIC. Reid is one of the world’s foremost experts on Harry Houdini, and his presentation included some fascinating information, including extremely rare video and audio clips of Harry Houdini. He clearly has a passion for the subject matter, and has devoted his life to being as informed as possible. I wish they’d given him more time…an hour wasn’t nearly enough to squeeze in all of the information he had to impart.

We stayed put in the Vista Lounge and tried out hand at Masters Team Trivia, but it was really tough and we didn’t win a prize (which was fine, because we’d already gotten prizes a few days ago—one of the social staff had some extra water bottles and slipped them to the kids at the end of one of the trivia sessions because we’d come in second place).

After that, it was time for Snowball Jackpot Bingo. The prize was up to $2,200 but nobody won it, although we tried our best.

Soon it was time to head back to the room and start getting ready for our last Formal Night. We purchased a few of our Formal Portraits already, and they cost a small fortune, so we had no intention of sitting for any more pictures. We headed straight for the dining room, and the staff there mentioned the Princess Questionnaires we’d be getting soon in our staterooms. They made it clear that if they received any rating less than a perfect 5 out of 5, they would get in big trouble. While I had no problem giving high marks to our waitress and her assistant, the Powers That Be at Princess got an earful about the rest of the dining room staff and the folks at the Purser’s Office. I’m not sure if it made any difference, but I’m hoping it did.

Right after dinner was a brand new production show, “Do You Wanna Dance”. It was the best show of the entire trip. The dancers performed a wide variety of dance styles, including Irish step dancing (like Lord of the Dance) that was energetic and perfectly executed. The kids absolutely loved it, and so did everyone else in the audience. We gave them a standing ovation.

After the show, we headed for the atrium to see the Champagne Waterfall at 11:30pm. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was so much fun. White-gloved waiters walked around handing out glasses of champagne to all of the adults, and there was a huge tower of glasses stacked in the bottom floor of the atrium. At the designated time, the Maitre D’ began pouring the champagne down the glasses, starting at the top, and as the bubbly flowed we all toasted one another and our wonderful trip we’d enjoyed thus far. It was the first time I could remember every staff member with a smile on their faces, and when I got back to my stateroom—lo and behold!—the Princess rating questionnaire was waiting for me. Perfect timing, eh?

Coming up…Our last port of call: Le Havre, France

Saturday, August 18, 2007

British Isles Souvenirs, part 1

I know, I've been remiss in posting these last two weeks. I've been busy enjoying my summer and attending a writer's workshop. This week, I'll be finishing up the last of the travel blogging for my trip to the British Isles, and then get back to my usual everyday blog topics. It was fun while it lasted!

Here are some of the great souvenirs I picked up on this trip:

A Crown ornament from the Tower of London Jewel House gift shop

A Claddagh wall plaque from Ireland

Tea Towels from Ireland, and an angel ornament

Some items from House of Beauly in Scotland
This is Whisky cake, a honeyspoon made of polished animal horn, and some homemade Scottish jam

I had the one on the left (without the whisky added) and it was fantastic...just like the one I tasted in Edinburgh.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Dolphin Costume

My Favorite Dolphin
Originally uploaded by LisaYak
I was looking at the beautiful dolphin pictures that Rosie O'Donnell has posted on her site, and couldn't resist posting this picture of my youngest daughter. She is obsessed with dolphins, and in 2005, decided she wanted to be a dolphin for Halloween.

I searched everywhere for a dolphin costume, and eventually had to end up sewing one myself. I still consider it one of those "great moments in motherhood" that I even pulled it off.

UPDATE: You can find complete instructions and photos for this costume HERE

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Tagged, like a wildebeest on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom...

Okay, so apparently there's this "tagging" thing making the rounds on the blogosphere, where you post "You've been tagged" on someone's blog, and then they have to post 8 interesting things about themselves.

And wouldn't you know it, I've been tagged.

Normally, I'm one of those people who detests chain letters or "pass it on" emails of any sort, even when they come from a dear friend. Heck, even when they come from my own mother, I get annoyed. I know my mother loves me, so why must she feel compelled to forward me every "Here's an angel wishing you joy" email she comes across? (Especially when these overtly religious epistles of love and harmony inevitably carry dire warnings of death and dismemberment if I don't forward it to 10 friends by sundown?) It drives me crazy.

Normally. But not this time.

This time, I must confess, I am so pathetically happy to have been included in this merry-go-round membership of cyberspace shenanigans, I'm actually going to respond. What's more: I'll probably go and tag someone else.

If you're reading this because you've been tagged, don't feel obligated to keep passing it on, because nothing bad will happen to you if you don't.

But I hope you'll pass it on anyway, because.....why the heck not?

So without further ado, here are 8 interesting things about myself.....

1. I hate chain letters, and ALWAYS break the chain. Bwah ha ha ha ha!

2. I chose Journalism as my major in college. The deciding factor: it was the only major that did NOT require Calculus.

3. The first concert I ever attended was Jay Black & the Americans at Belmont Racetrack in the early 1970s.

4. In an attempt to earn extra credit in Social Studies, I volunteered to be in a gubernatorial mock election debate for my 6th grade class in Brooklyn, circa 1978. I chose to argue for the incumbent, Governor Hugh Carey. Instead of going to the library and flipping through newspapers to do my research, I let my fingers do the walking and called his campaign headquarters. I told them I was representing the governor in an upcoming debate and needed to know where he stood on some of the issues. I was put on hold for a moment, and the next voice I heard said, "Carey, here." The campaign worker had put me directly through to the Governor of New York. I was 11 years old.

5. I've been stuck on #5 for about 20 minutes now, no lie.

6. I almost died giving birth the first time. I did it again less than 2 years later, just to prove I could do it WITHOUT losing half the blood in my body.

7. I can' t carry a tune, even if it's strapped to my back.

8. I truly believe, with all of my heart, that there is no problem so big that it cannot be solved with sufficient quantities of chocolate.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Edinburgh/S. Queensferry: Walking the Royal Mile

Friday, July 13, 2007 – Edinburgh (South Queensferry), Scotland

The ship anchored off the port in South Queensferry, and after a tender ride under the red railway bridge, we arrived. There are two options for those wishing to get into Edinburgh on their own: take a train into Waverly Station (the heart of downtown Edinburgh) or grab a taxi. We were told that taxis were limited, but did not want to make the steep climb up 150 steps to the train station. [NOTE: Later on in the day, I met a lovely older couple on the return tender who told me they walked up the steps to the train without a problem, so it might not be as bad as the ship's tour folks make it out to be.] The trains also run only about once an hour, so we waited a bit and caught a private-hire car into the city, at a cost ₤20—not bad for the 5 of us. (This was a flat rate charge—no meter. On the way back, our taxi w/meter cost ₤17.50. We were told ahead of time it would cost ₤15-₤20, so depending on traffic and weather conditions, I’d say that was accurate). NOTE: there’s a shop just across the street from the dock area that has business cards for several taxi companies by the cash register. If there are no taxis waiting at the taxi stand, you can call for one yourself—provided you have a Blackberry or some other cellular phone that works there. Two of the cab companies that serve the area: Hawes Cars, 0131-331-1077, and Queensferry Cabs, 0131-331-4433. For our return trip, we lucked out and got a taxi that was just dropping off someone at Cannongate Kirk (opposite the Museum of Edinburgh).

Our driver into Edinburgh, Owen, was great. On the way into town, we had some great conversation with him about the super-strict smoking laws in Scotland and the crackdown on cell phone use while driving. I asked him for recommendations for lunch (since I was not going to leave Scotland without trying haggis first) and he said the best haggis in town can be found at a pub on the Royal Mile called The Mitre. Owen said it was a child-friendly pub as well, so we had him mark it down on our map for us (on High Street between Carruber and north Gray’s).

Owen agreed with our plan to start at Edinburgh Castle and proceed down the Royal Mile to Holyrood Palace, because that way, you’re walking downhill the entire time, rather than doing a steep climb in the other direction. He dropped us off at the Esplanade and we were on our way.

There were preparations in place for a Blondie concert that evening, so lots of stage scaffolding blocked our initial views of the castle. Once it came into view though, it was beautiful and impressive. When I got to the ticket office, I asked about a family rate, and it was then that I discovered a big mistake I’d made the day before. There’s a Scotland Pass you can purchase that is good for admission at many other sites throughout Scotland [For more info, see earlier blog post titled: SCOTLAND TRAVELERS: Money-Saving Tip] . If I’d purchased one at Urquhart Castle, admission to Edinburgh Castle would have been free. Darn it! Oh well…now YOU know, and you can save the money that I didn’t. It’s cheaper to buy the 3-day pass than it is to purchase 2 adult tickets and 3 children’s tickets, so I purchased the pass anyway, taking note for next time.

The castle paths are all cobblestone and quite uneven, so those in wheelchairs or pushing strollers will find it a very bumpy ride. The castle itself has several steep inclines, so those with mobility issues will also need to take it slow and careful. There were many cannons, including the famous Mons Meg, and a couple of small gift shops (not worth a visit, in my opinion). We went up to see the “Treasures” (aka the Crown jewels). There were lots of displays detailing the history behind the jewels, including how they were crafted and how they were smuggled away and hidden for over 100 years, lest the British melt them down during their struggles with the Highlanders. The kids compared these displays (with mannequins and animal figures posed in vignettes) to the wax museum in London. There is no photography allowed in this section, but that didn’t stop other tourists from snapping pictures, despite all of the signs prohibiting it.

When we finally wound our way through the rooms and arrived at the Crown jewels, I confess it was a bit of a letdown. The room is dark and cramped, with a small two-sided display containing the scepter and crown, and another flat wall display (with many people crowded around it, making it difficult to see) containing some rings and necklaces.

We exited out onto the castle grounds once again, took a few more photographs (there are some great views of the city from the castle) and then left to walk the Royal Mile.

Just outside the castle is the Camera Obscura, where you can ascend into an observation tower and get 360 degree views of the city, but we decided to skip it, since we’d already seen some beautiful vistas from the castle. Right across the street is the Scotch Whiskey Center, with its impressive gift shop (a huge array of scotch brands available). The tour was about an hour long, so we opted to pay ₤12 and just take the barrel ride instead. It’s very similar to those rides like It’s a Small World at Disneyworld or the Great Movie Ride at MGM in Orlando. except the cars you’re riding in are shaped like barrels, and you’re learning about the history of scotch whiskey. I think the adults got more out of it than the kids did, but it was a nice break for them to rest their little feet after the cobblestone climb of the castle. The barrel ride also includes a whiskey tasting for the adults at the coffee shop (Dewar’s White Label) and some soda pop for the kids.

We proceeded just up the street and down an alley into the Writer’s Museum. The younger kids waited outside with my husband while I went inside with my eldest daughter and checked out the displays on Robert Louis Stevenson. We popped in the small gift shop and I picked up a writing journal as a souvenir, and then we headed down the steps and across Market Street to the National Gallery.

The artwork at the National Gallery was wonderful: great works by Monet, Degas, Matisse, and more. Definitely worth a visit!

From here, we crossed the street once again, and crossed over the George IV bridge to take a picture outside of The Elephant House, which is the pub where J.K. Rowling has said she sat and wrote the first Harry Potter book. We doubled back over the bridge again and followed High Street to St. Giles Cathedral. Took a few pictures, and then proceeded up the Royal Mile, stopping in shops along the way to pick up a few souvenirs before arriving at The Mitre, the pub Owen recommended to us.

The way it works at The Mitre (and many other traditional pubs) is that you seat yourself, noting your table number, then grab a menu and place your order at the bar. You pay in advance, and then the wait staff brings you your food. I ordered the Haggis with Nips and Tatties (turnips and mashed potatoes) and it was DELICIOUS. It was similar to corned beef hash, and very, very tasty. [NOTE: They offer Haggis as a starter or as a main course, so if you're not qute brave enough to have it for your entire meal, you can order the starter portion. I was very glad I ordere a full entree portion, though--it really was fantastic.] Rich and Christina both tried it and agreed it was great. There is a kids’ menu at The Mitre, but Cathy didn’t want anything they had listed (Chicken strips, fish & chips, veggie nuggets) so she had some of the Garlic Ciabatta Bread w/melted cheese (meant as a side order, but it was just the right amount for her). The older girls had the Lasagne off the adult menu, and Rich had the fish & chips, which was outstanding. As usual, we also sampled the local beer: Rich had a Bellhaven’s Best, while I sampled the Caledonian Light.

Our next stop was Neanie Scott, a wonderful shop on the Royal mile (131 Canongate), where we met Kathryn Erikson, the proprietor. The items in her shop were all Made in Scotland, with gorgeous cashmere ponchos, scarves and sweaters at competitive prices. Amy found an adorable Westie dog toy dressed in a tartan that was handmade in Scotland, and is sold exclusively at this shop (they also had a black Scottie version available).

We stopped in the Museum of Childhood, which starts out as a small toy shop that you walk through in order to access the other floors of the museum. The kids enjoyed seeing the old board games, dollhouses, model trains, and the many other toys on display in the 5 galleries located here. There are restrooms available on the 4th floor, too, and admission to the museum is free.

There wasn’t much more to see along the Mile until we reached the Palace of Holyroodhouse, where we quickly experienced sticker shock at the admission price: ₤33 ($66US) for family admission! We decided to take pictures of the outside of the Palace and skip the interiors, since the kids had already had their fill of spiral staircases, musty rooms and antique furniture. We walked back up the Royal Mile and stopped outside of Canongate Kirk, which is directly across the street from the Museum of Edinburgh. The kids sat on a bench outside of Canongate and I got them some homemade ice cream from Angel’s Espresso café, located next door to the Museum of Edinburgh. The only flavor they have is vanilla, but it was thick and rich and the kids agreed it tasted more like cake batter than vanilla—absolutely decadent and wonderful.

A large taxi pulled up to drop off passengers at Canongate, and since the kids had just finished up their ice cream, we hopped in and headed back to the ship. The rain started falling right after we got into the taxi, so the timing was perfect.

We relaxed for awhile, got ready for dinner, and went to the late show. It featured a return performance by comedian Rikki Jay (once again, he was hysterically funny) and singer Phillipa Healey. At the end of the show, the Cruise Director reminded everyone that we’d be turning the clocks ahead one hour that evening in preparation for our stop in LeHavre, France. We all looked forward to our last At Sea day, for some much-needed rest after all of the touring.

Coming up: Our last AT SEA day…

Jalapeno Hands: something that actually works!

Pardon me whilst I take a quick break from my travel blogging for this important public service announcement:

I was making gazpacho today, and stupidly cut up some jalapeno pepper without wearing gloves first. I washed my hands right afterwards, but it was too late: the oils got into my skin, and my hands and fingers started burning really badly.

I "googled" burning + hands + jalapenos and found a loooong thread filled with home remedies for the charming condition known as "Jalapeno Hands", but none of them worked. (Washing my hands while holding a stainless steel spoon made it only a little better, but not much. Other stuff I tried: Dawn dishwashing soap, lemon juice, white vinegar, milk, rubbing alcohol, sanitizing gel, hydrogen peroxide, cortisone cream, burn cream, pure aloe vera.)

FINALLY, I found the solution: Calamine lotion! It's a drying solution that helps draw out the oils that cause itching and redness from exposure to poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. Well guess what? It works like a charm for jalapeno oil, too!

I slathered on the Calamine lotion, letting it dry completely on my hands for about 10 minutes. Then I rinsed off with cold soapy water, and the stinging was COMPLETELY gone.

To anyone out there suffering from this same malady, get thee some pink calamine lotion!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Inverness/Invergordon: Look out Nessie, here we come!

Thursday, July 12, 2007 – Inverness (Invergordon), Scotland

We docked in Invergordon bright and early, and upon arrival we were treated to the glorious sound of bagpipers serenading us as we went ashore.

I enjoyed all of the ports we visited on this trip, but if I had to single out just one as a favorite, it would be this one.

There were many things we wanted to see in Inverness, so we hired a private tour ahead of time from J.A. Johnstone Chauffeur Drive. The owner was an absolute pleasure to deal with, and I highly recommend him. Our driver/guide for the day was Ian (Our second Ian in a row!) and he was wonderful.

As soon as we stepped off the ship in Invergordon, Ian was waiting to whisk us away to Inverness. The plan: see all of the big attractions, while staying one step ahead of the tour buses in order to avoid the crowds!

NOTE: One of the great things about having a driver with a car, as opposed to a larger tour bus, is that many of the country roads in Inverness are picturesque but n-a-r-r-o-w—too narrow for a big bus to maneuver through, so we got to see some gorgeous backroads farmland, without hitting any traffic. In addition to the sheep and cattle, we saw some beautiful red deer grazing in the lush valleys of Inverness. Ian also pointed out some teenage boys working their lucrative summer jobs: picking out the wild oats that grow in the barley fields. The oats have to be weeded out before the barley can be harvested, and the boys are paid by how many bushels of oats they can tear out by the end of the day. We also saw some men playing “shinty”, a game similar to hurling.


Ian taught us a few things about Scottish vocabulary during the drive from Invergordon to Inverness. We knew that “loch” was the Scottish word for lake, but he also told us that “firth” meant “an inlet of water”, and that when you see a place name that has the prefix “Kil” in it (e.g. Kiltarlity), that means a monk lived there.

First up: we made a brief visit to the Loch Ness Visitor’s Center, to have a closer look at Nessie.

We also drove through a great little town named Beauly that was dotted with shops all along the main street, and we decided to stop there for some shopping on the way back to the ship later.

Along the way, Ian mentioned that although this area is commonly referred to as “The Black Isle” it is not really an island at all, but a peninsula. We thoroughly enjoyed the stretches of driving in between the tourist sites, because the natural, unspoiled beauty of Inverness is an attraction in and of itself.

Our next stop was Urquhart Castle, a medieval castle that sits alongside the waters of Loch Ness, and was the literary setting for Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The castle itself is worth the trip, but the vistas of the loch from that vantage point are also not to be missed.


The gift shop was large and very crowded (a tour bus arrived and everybody swarmed the place) but it’s a good place to pick up some souvenirs—lots of choices, including stuffed toys, books, jewelry, and housewares. My daughters picked up a stuffed Nessie doll, a Scottish wildlife calendar, and I got a few Christmas ornaments before heading out. (We also used the restrooms, which were very clean and handicapped accessible.)

Then we drove along the country roads again, stopping at some quiet spots to take a few photos and plead with Nessie to show herself, just once. (Alas, she was too shy, and didn’t accommodate us this time. Maybe you’ll have better luck?)

Our next stop was Culloden Battlefield. I confess, I did not know much at all about Scottish history before this trip, or the level of violence and bloodshed that occurred here at Culloden all those years ago. Ian spoke of Culloden with a reverance in his voice, and told us to take note of the utter stillness as we walked out onto the battlefield site. “You don’t hear a sound out there,” he told us before we went in. “It’s like even the crickets know it’s hallowed ground, and keep silent.”


Whatever you do, don’t just rush out onto the battlefield; start your visit to Culloden by watching the short film that describes the history behind the massacre that occurred there. Note for those with young children: the film was not overly graphic or scary, and our 7-year-old was fine with it.

After the film, a young boy came into the screening room dressed in traditional Highlander clothes and played a plaintive song on the bagpipes. Then, another man dressed in character as a French Regiment soldier gave a “living history” presentation. He did a great job, and was very engaging as he demonstrated the various battle weapons that were used during the fighting at Culloden in 1742. He showed how the Highlanders’ weapons were indeed fearsome (shields, swords, knives, and brave fighting techniques), but were no match for the advanced weaponry of the British soldiers and the French allies (canons, rifles, buckshot, and a take-no-prisoners/show no mercy military directive). It was then time to go out to the battlefield.

Culloden Battlefield is vast and beautiful and eerie. There are stone markers throughout the field that bear the names of the Highlander clans that suffered fatalities that day. The site definitely has a palpable “presence” about it that is stirring, and one that I will always remember.


NOTE: The City Sightseeing bus company that runs those Hop On/Hop Off buses had a route in Inverness that also includes a Culloden Loop Tour from May 26th-Sept. 30th. If you’d like to tour Inverness on your own, you might want to check it out.

Next was Cawdor Castle, a fine example of medieval architecture that has been beautifully preserved. The current owner, The Dowager Countess Cawdor, lives in the castle from October through April, but has it open to visitors from May to September. Ian spotted the Countess herself driving in as we were leaving, and mentioned that she stops in often, even during touring season.


The castle was in great condition, and it was interesting touring the bedrooms and seeing the traditional furnishings—antique furniture, artwork, fine tapestries—alongside more modern-day touches. For example, a sidetable in one of the guestrooms had a stack of old, leather-bound books…and a hardcover copy of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code nestled among them.

Make sure you stop in the dungeon (duck your head—low entryway) and see the famous Willow Tree. As the legend goes, the battle-weary Thane of Cawdor returned to his homeland a wealthy man, and decided that he wanted to build himself a grand castle to live in. He had his donkey with him for the journey, and declared that wherever his donkey lay down and rest for the night, that was the spot where he would build his castle. That evening, the donkey chose a shady spot under a willow tree, and that is precisely where the Thane of Cawdor had his castle built. Rather than cut the tree down, they built around it, and you can still see what remains of it to this day.

We were pretty hungry after all of that touring, so we stopped at the Cawdor Café restaurant for a bite to eat. The choices were a bit limited (not much for picky eaters here) but the food was very good. The younger kids made due with some fruit salad and a cheese platter, while Rich and I had toasted panini sandwiches and sampled some local beer from Inverness’ own Black Isle Brewery . Rich had a Blonde Ale and I had the Red Kite Ale; both were excellent.

After lunch, we explored the grounds a bit. The kids enjoyed the walled garden maze, but the star attraction was the breathtaking Flower Garden. It was the most lovely, colorful, fragrant garden I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. Pictures can’t possibly do it justice. There are paths that wind through the garden, leading to benches where you can sit and take in the natural beauty around you. There’s also a door on the right side of the garden that leads out to miles of nature trails through the woods.

It was time to head over to Beauly for a bit of shopping before going back to the ship. I told Ian that I was looking for some authentic local crafts, not the usual touristy stuff, so he dropped me and the girls off at House of Beauly (formerly known as Made in Scotland) and took Rich over to a nearby Priory to take some pictures there while we shopped.


There was a fine selection of woolen items and specialty crafts from local artisans there, but the section that drew my attention was the Food area. There was a wonderful selection of Scottish cookies, jams (some flavored with single malt whisky), chocolates, whiskey cake, spirits, honey, and—oh my gosh, can it be?—Haggis in a can.

And yes, I bought some.

After a few minutes, we met up with Rich and Ian again, and made our way back to Invergordon. As we drove over the bridge, Ian pointed out some seals sunning themselves on the rocks during low tide (they raise their heads and tails up in the air as they bask, forming a wide U-shape).

We made it back to the ship just in time to enjoy a terrific Scottish Folkloric show at 5pm (don't miss it!) featuring local musicians, singers and dancers. They wore traditional dress and put on a great show for the large and enthusiastic crowd in the Princess Theater. It was the perfect way to end our magical day in Inverness/Invergordon.

After dinner, we went to the late show to see Frank Delana, a comedian who has appeared on David Letterman and HBO. (I liked him immediately because, like me, he hails from Brooklyn, New York.) He was very funny and got a lot of laughs.

Coming soon: Beware of ladders and black cats…it’s Friday the 13th in Edinburgh!