Advice, Healthy & Beautiful

Every Woman Should Empower Herself Financially

When I was in my 20s which was (ahem) almost 20 years ago, I (naively) believed I would find a good man, get married, and never have to worry about my financial future again.  Throughout those years, I had a lot of fun – I traveled, partied, moved to Seattle, San Diego, and back to D.C., bought luxury cars, went shopping for the latest fashions, but NEVER saved a dime.  In fact, I put myself in a lot of debt, living my carefree lifestyle, enjoying every bit of it. I justified the high balance on my credit cards by claiming I couldn’t just sit at home and live a boring life…

In the first half of my 30s, I started my own company, which was accompanied by a huge dip in income in its first year. I went from spending recklessly, to searching for pennies to feed myself, almost overnight.  I missed birthdays, baby showers, bachelorette parties, bridal showers, weddings, and other of my friends’ life milestones because I had no means to bring a gift, or even pay for parking/gas to get there.  I was so embarrassed by my financial situation that I would decline their invitations, citing I wasn’t feeling well (mentally, I wasn’t), or that I had work that needed to be done, because I was on a deadline (trying to make sure I could get paid in a timely manner). I looked back at my twenties and cursed myself for not having saved any money, yet also longed for the fun I had been having, which told me that if I had had the means, I would have kept on with my fast and carefree lifestyle.    It wasn’t until I was married (and subsequently divorced) in my mid-30s did all of that change, forcing me to face my “demons” head on, and change how I viewed/handled money.

When you throw yourself into a situation of having to take care of someone else because they, themselves, make very little, AND you’ve been surprised with a puppy (which I’ll admit, was the greatest surprise of all time); you’re forced to grow up.  I went from a carefree, crazy lifestyle; to almost being homeless; to making a modest income, while having to a support a “family”.

Being married puts a very different lens on how you live your life, as well as the choices you make.  Purchases I used to make independently now affected not just myself.  If I wanted a new top, I had to think about whether I was able to buy enough food for the week, for two people, and still afford it.  While I could go without a lot of food, my ex could not.  There were times it drove me crazy to not be able to even go to Forever 21 for a cheap t-shirt, but I also knew that there were long-standing lessons I needed to learn out of this, and that one day, it wouldn’t be so bad (or so I kept telling myself when I was home on Saturday nights).

To compound this, we moved to San Diego to start a new life together (as D.C. had left me with nothing but sub-par memories and a lifestyle I couldn’t afford), and it meant that my ex (who was a bartender by trade) had to search for work.  We had no idea how hard it would be to 1. Find him a job, because bartending positions were hard to come by; and 2. Find him a bartending position that actually paid decent (sometimes, he came home with $20 cash, since tips are split on a sliding scale).  This meant that rent, utilities, food, car payment, gas, puppy care, mounting debt payments, etc. all fell to me.  While it was the second most stressful financial situation I had ever been in, it was also one of the most gratifying and empowering.

While I had been keeping a spreadsheet of my expenses for years, I started to plan out an entire year’s worth of finances, assuming I was the only one making a solid income every month. I put us on a year-long plan to save as much as I could in case one of us (including the pup) had an emergency, and that meant making large sacrifices in the short term (i.e. never going out unless it was a day trip to the beach, or somewhere else that allowed us fresh air without costing us anything).  This included anything leftover from budgeted financial line items (i.e. we didn’t use all of our grocery or gas money), which would go into savings, as did the small amounts of cash he’d bring home from work.

Unfortunately, this belt tightening led to us moving on from each other, as he didn’t understand why we had to make financial sacrifices in the first place.  He didn’t seem to understand the realities of being on a modest salary, as he had always lived with his parents (he’s from Europe where family life is very different), and didn’t worry about much beyond any money he may have borrowed from them.  He found our situation to be too constrictive and thus, our chapter ended.  Sure, it was painful, but I also found solace in 1. Knowing I was only responsible for myself and my little furry son; and 2. Having a better understanding of what it meant to be financially free, while saving as much money as I possibly could.

In the last 2 1/2 years, since I moved back to D.C., I made good on my self-promise to save more and spend less.  Even while getting raises and bonuses, I opted to save that money, and invest it, so that I could focus on my bigger life picture (including having enough money in my bank account for six months worth of expenses, in case something happened to my job).  I got rid of my car (perks for living closer to the city), saving me almost $1000 a month, which also went into savings.  Before I knew it, seven months ago, I was able to buy a home with a small down payment, and still sock away enough money into some investment accounts and three different savings accounts.  Next year, my savings plan is even more aggressive.

You might be wondering, “Does she actually go out and have any fun, or even see the world?!”  From my other blog posts, you can see the answer to that 🙂  I am lucky to be in a great relationship, in which I’m able to share some of the household expenses, allowing for an increased “entertainment” budget.  Compared to most people’s going out in D.C. expenses though, it’s highly modest.  Below are some of my tips on budgeting and how you, too, can save for the future, while also being able to enjoy life too!

  • Consignment – You love to shop, especially luxury brand names (my weaknesses include shoes and handbags).  Go through your closet and pull out any items you aren’t using anymore, and consign them at your local consignment shop, or on a consignment site, such as Poshmark.  If they are luxury goods, head over to The Real Real and set up an account (best site for that), and opt for store credit when you consign. I allow my sales balance to grow before I purchase a new item on there so that the money I spend comes from the items I’ve sold – not a credit card, or additional cash from my bank account.
  • What to do with a raise – Treat it as though you never got it, and invest it! When I got a raise at work, I took that additional cash and threw it into a ROTH IRA (for now).  I don’t ever miss it, because it’s auto-debited on purpose!
  • You have extra money in your checking account from budgeted items that you didn’t end up purchasing – Throw that into a savings account!  Those cents/dollars add up quick!
  • Budget for a whole year – include EVERYTHING you think you will spend money on – this includes birthdays, weddings, engagement parties, hair, nails, makeup, food, weekly gas, vacations, etc.  Set a budget for each of these items, and be realistic, yet not too conservative.  You might spend $30 on someone’s birthday gift, but estimate $50.  You might spend $100 a month on getting your hair colored, but what if you need a haircut 3 months later? Did it also include tip?  Seeing a budget helps put in perspective your spending habits.
  • Plan for vacations a year in advance – Yes, I’m serious and no, you don’t need to pick a location right away, although it’s helpful!  We’re planning on a 10-day California adventure for November 2018, and we know we want the experience to be everything we want in a trip like this.  I put together a spreadsheet of our drive down the coast, which includes places to stay, the cost per night/person (including taxes), and the URLs so I don’t forget; things we want to see that cost money; the car rental, the one-way flights, etc.  We vowed to start saving January 1st so we wouldn’t have to worry about money on the trip. (Note: It’s also always wonderful to have things to look forward to, and if you get closer to your vacation date, and you can’t go, you’ll be amazed at how much money you have now saved!)
  • Become your own chef! I budget $200 every two weeks for food (for me), I buy food on Tuesdays, and meal prep for the week (I can’t make poor eating decisions/spend money on takeout when I’ve done this).  I’m not saying don’t eat out, I’m saying reduce how many times you eat out in a week – it adds up!  I go out to eat once a week, and I grocery shop on Tuesdays because that’s when all of the sales/deals come out – buying generic brands definitely helps too, as they oftentimes get deeper discounts.  Sounds old-ladyish, but I’ve actually saved anywhere from $20 – $40 by shopping on that day!  I then take that money, and put it into savings, or throw it towards another part of my budget.
  • Be realistic with your evenings out – I used to get major FOMO when I didn’t go out, but I paid for it dearly in credit card debt. Ubers/Lyfts and drinks ADD UP BIG TIME!  It’s one of the hardest habits to curb when you like to have a good time.  For me, I had to stop going out, little by little, allowing myself only a night a week.  While it sounds miserable, it has done wonders for my waist line, my mind, my sleep patterns, and my wallet.  I also find myself looking forward to those evenings more, knowing it’s my one night to enjoy myself. Still, if there’s a special event, such as a concert, musical, or a charity event I want to go to, I have to work through what I’m sacrificing to be able to go to it.  Usually, it’s one of my weekends, or something else in my budget I can live without. And yes, I have friends, which means it’s also a lot of pot luck dinners at each other’s homes!
  • Staying on fashion trends while not breaking the bank – I’ve learned that trendy clothes are rarely worth the pricey investment, yet I love to look my best.  For my staple items, such as jeans, coats, classic shoes, etc., I’ll spend money on those investment pieces, knowing I’ll have them for years.  For the trendier stuff, I have no shame in admitting I go to Forever 21 🙂
  • Reward yourself – Whether we want to admit it or not, we are a reward-based society. I’ve learned that there are milestones in my life that I want to be able to celebrate (no matter how small), and if I don’t have the means, it brings me down a bit.  Thus, I set aside part of my bonus, or even part of my tax return, for monthly rewards that allow me to feel like I’m not so restrictive.
  • Find ways to make a passive income – There are SO MANY WAYS to do this!  Back in the day, I took writing side gigs.  These days, I’m opting for honing my writing craft on evenings and weekends to publish my books, and sell my screenplays – something that will net more passive income in the future, than if I were to take on other writing projects in the short term. Find something you’re good at, and find a way to monetize it!
  • It’s okay to have a credit card (as long as you’re responsible) and if you do have one, make sure you get rewards!  I have a United card, which equates to MILES!  Every purchase I make, is on that card (which I review the expenditures daily to ensure I’ve not overspent on my budget).  Using this card for everything has allowed me to spend a total of $22 on two flights for next year (which would have totaled $800 otherwise), as I racked up enough miles using that card (responsibly).
  • My Amazon Prime account is worth every penny – From movie and music streaming services, to Kindle books, free shipping, Prime Pantry, and Prime days, I’ve saved A LOT of money on things that bring me daily joy.

Now for the first step, and for some real words of advice … none of this will even be possible if you don’t take stock of you and your life first.  I had to ask myself a lot of difficult questions to get here, and many a time, the truth was ugly.  I was spending to fill an emotional hole because I didn’t want to face some of my harsher realities.  When I was depressed with absolutely no self-confidence, I’d spend more to make myself look better.  When I was happy, I’d spend less, opting to save the dollars.  I had to take a look around to see if anyone noticed my shiny exterior, and as it turned out, it didn’t matter what wrapper you put around me, my dull light within was noticeable, far more than a pair of Louboutins.

If you’re one of those that is reading this, and feeling totally helpless because you are where I was 10 years ago, there is always HOPE and always TIME to change this part of your life around!  Start small – one week, go grocery shopping, and each time you have the urge to go out, take that money you would have spent, and put it towards your credit card, or throw it into a savings account, but DON’T SPEND IT! Otherwise, you’re not moving any closer towards your goals.

Or, for another perspective, take your net income, divide that by how many hours you work in a week, and ask yourself if that purchase is worth x hours of work?  For example, Sally wants a new pair of shoes that are $200, and would probably not be worn very much.  She calculates that it would take her four hours of work to afford them.  She realizes she’d rather put that towards a much-needed night out, and leaves the shoe store.

Regardless of how you approach heading towards healthier habits, it’s an incremental process that (literally) pays off in the long run.  I hope that through this, I’ve at least inspired some of you to set yourselves up for better, freer future selves that will certainly be able to breathe a lot easier when you’re ready to retire, make that big purchase, or are able to proudly say you are no longer paycheck-to-paycheck.  And remember, if you HAVE to borrow, you SHOULDN’T spend!

Good luck!

 

 

 

 

 

Date Ideas, Fun, Travel, United States

Date Night: Harold Black and B Too

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Anyone who knows me, knows I have a HUGE love of speakeasies.  A few weekends ago, we decided to try Harold Black, and we were definitely not disappointed.

Like most speakeasies, you either spend quite a bit of time looking for the entrance, or you look it up (like we did).  Below are the directions on how to find the speakeasy, including a video!

Directions: To the left Acqua al 2’s patio is a nondescript wooden door.  It looks as though it’s locked, but it’s not.  You go up the staircases, open another door, and up another staircase.  At the end of the hallway is a table with instructions.

Once inside, you’re transported into a genuine replica of a 1920s speakeasy.  From the furniture, to the lighting (which makes the atmosphere that much cooler), to the decor, and even the bathrooms, they left no detail out. (Note, bathroom lighting makes great selfie lighting 😛 )

As for the drinks/food – both are amazing.  We spent two hours tasting some of the appetizers, and each choosing two cocktails from the menu.  (The menu changes often enough that it’s hard to recommend anything.)

Out of the three I’ve been to in D.C. thus far, PX, Harold Black, and Captain Gregory’s I’d recommend, in that order.

B Too

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I’ve been to B Too before, but it was so good I had to come back! Bart Vandaele has created a Belgium concept that has become something of a staple in Logan Circle.  If you have ever been to Belgium, you know that there’s primarily two sides to the country: French and Dutch.  Known for mainly mussels, chocolate, and waffles, (and cheese on the dutch side), a lot of authentic Belgium food can seem bland.  Bart has managed to take many common dishes and put a tasteful flair to them.  It’s one of the reasons it’s so popular.  We ended up with a three course meal for each, and out of that, only one dish got a picture (we were so hungry, we sort of forgot).  Below are my recommendations:

Starters:

  • Salade Van Bietjes (Red beet salad) – gluten-free – highly recommended
  • Wafel Van Kreeft (Maine lobster waffle) – highly recommended

Main Dish:

  • Poulet Rôti Père Maurits (Roasted Amish chicken) – gluten-free – highly recommended
  • Belgische Filet Pur Met Friejtes (Center cut filet with fries) – The steak was decent but the fries were amazing!

Dessert:

  • S’mores dish (cannot remember the actual name of the dish) – Isn’t recommended – the waffle dessert is better
  • House made ice cream and sorbet – gluten-free – Isn’t recommended – I wasn’t a fan of the taste of any of the flavors

 

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Date Ideas, Fun, Travel, United States

Steve Martin and Martin Short at Wolftrap

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Two of the funniest men on the planet came to Wolftrap last Friday night, and it made for one of the best variety/comedy shows I’ve ever been to (and one of a start to the weekend).

Steve Martin and Martin Short are on their “An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life” tour, and they had two back-to-back Wolftrap performances this past weekend, to sold out crowds.

From SNL, to “Father of the Bride”, to their individual performances in their own films; these two are are considered the epitome of classic sketch comedy that’s both relatable and appreciated at any age.  With their quick wit (cue Three Amigos skit with participating audience members, and Martin’s on-the-fly responses), their love of a good roast (Martin Short can deliver some great jabs), and physical comedic acting (both had their share); they prove that their talent is unique, as well as rare.

But, what made this show even more special, is Steve Martin’s love of Bluegrass.  His band, “Steep Canyon Rangers” delivered an amazing mini concert, some of which featured Steve’s unbelievable banjo playing skills.  All around, I laughed so hard I cried, I tapped my foot so hard it was sore, and I smiled so big my cheeks hurt.

If they come to your area, make sure to grab your tickets before they are sold out!

Check out some of my pictures below (excuse the graininess – we were in box seats high up).  Video was prohibited, so I couldn’t take any.

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Date Ideas, Events/Performances, Fun, Travel, United States

Richard Marx and Rick Springfield at Wolftrap

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“… so after three days of recording the album with N’Sync, they had to sneak out the back door, because there were 800 girls waiting in the front, and I, not being known, went out the front… to my car… in the main parking lot. Out of no where, a smoking hot girl runs up to me and asks, ‘Are you Richard Marx?’ To which I reply, ‘Why yes I am!’  She responds with, ‘My mom LOVES you!’…” (Richard Marx on his age.)

This is just a small snippet of how wonderful the evening was with both Richard Marx and Rick Springfield.  They are (self-deprecating) funny, relaxed, and prove that they are still willing to tour, solely because they love their fans, and they love performing.  While I agreed to accompany my mom to see her longtime heartthrob (Rick Springfield), I found myself truly enjoying the show they put on separately, as well as together.  The entire thing was done acoustically.

Check out some of my videos and pictures below.  More videos can be found here.

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Events/Performances, Fun, Travel, United States

I Love the 90s Tour at Wolftrap

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A few weekends ago, I relived junior high school, high school, and college, all in one night, at Wolftrap.  When I heard a 90s tour with artists, such as Snap!, C+C Music Factory, Kid n’Play, Montell Jordan, Rob Base, TLC, and more were coming, I had to go.

The downside to going to these concerts is a. Realizing how old you are, and b. Realizing how old the artists are now, and how they no longer look exactly like they did in your childhood memories.  (To put it in perspective, Kid n’ Play’s “House Party” is 25 years old, and Kid is 53.)

The upside was that it was fun to hear the old songs again, and hear of what these artists are now up to.

Check out my videos and pictures below (more videos of each can be found here).

Snap!

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C+C Music Factory

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Montell Jordan

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Kid n’ Play

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Each of them were having so much fun… until…

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TLC

My mom and I left the concert after their second song, because it was that bad. T-Boz seemed incredibly unhappy to be there, and while Chili looked amazing, you could tell she was doing her best to carry the now duo.  They were singing along to recorded tracks – the whole thing was just awful.  I feel for them, but I’m unsure I’d recommend staying for their performance, or even going to one of their concerts.

Overall, it was a great night, and I’m so happy I got to relive the best part of that decade!

Australia, Travel

Australia – Exploring Sydney

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Sydney is much different than Melbourne, in that it reminds me of many other large cities I’ve been to in the world, namely San Francisco.  In walking the streets, you will recognize a lot of large company names, including tech/consulting business, shops, and restaurants.  But, what sets it apart is its location, and some of the most iconic architecture in the world.

Below is my itinerary for Sydney, including how to get around, what I saw, and where I dined/drank.

Transportation

Getting to/from the airport

Sydney has a multitude of easy ways to get to/from the airport.  Cabs are the most convenient (and most expensive – about $55 AUD each way – Lyft might be cheaper).  There is also a train that takes you to/from the airport, to virtually any destination.  If you aren’t lugging a ton of stuff (like I did), then I recommend the train.

Getting to/from destinations across Sydney Harbor

To get to anywhere, away from Sydney, such as Manly Beach, Bondi Beach, Coogee, Taronga Zoo, etc., you have to take the ferry at Circular Quay.  The rides provide the best views of Sydney, are equipped with free Wi-fi, and for the longer rides, a cafe.  There are many different ferry companies.  I used those that the Opal Card supports, which also happen to be cheaper (about $15 AUD roundtrip to most places).

NOTE: Make sure to take one ferry ride, back to Sydney, at sunset, and sit at the front of the boat, no matter how cold.  I failed to do this, and missed the sun setting, which would have provided more spectacular pictures than the one below.

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Accommodations

Since it’s winter, almost all hotels are highly affordable.  The Four Seasons had a pre-paid deal of less than $200 AUD a night, which put me smack in the middle of the city in decent accommodations.

Places to Dine/Drink

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View from Ripples

Ripples – I love recommendations from local inhabitants.  This one came from a guy that my mom sat next to on a plane, and while it doesn’t look like much from the outside, it sits right on the water, under the Sydney bridge, and serves up five-star meals.  It’s my best recommendation in this city for any time dining.  NOTE: The pork belly and short ribs dishes are AMAZING!

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Pork Belly

Abode – Nestled in the middle of many corporate offices is Abode.  It serves up all sorts of amazing food (their sweet potato fries are THE BEST) and drinks, in a chic, upscale setting.  It’s a great place for happy hour!

Palmer & Co. – Imagine stepping into a Prohibition Era bar filled with swing dancers, clinking glasses, loud laughter, and bartenders serving up the best cocktails, all while feeling like you just transported yourself back to the 1920s.  Being a sucker for this era (with a secret wish to transport back in time for a week), my jaw hit the floor when we walked in.  This was everything I had ever wanted to see in a Speakeasy, and it didn’t disappoint.  It is a MUST-SEE in Sydney!

Felix – Down Ash street (and many other alleyways) is a string of eclectic fine-dining restaurants.  Felis is a French Bistro, nestled down this alleyway, offering both indoor and outdoor seating.  It instantly transports you into Europe, and it’s food didn’t disappoint.  I recommend it for lunch, and highly recommend the beetroot salad.

Opera Bar – There are several restaurants and bars that line the pathway up to the Opera House, with the Opera Bar being one of the biggest.  It offers the best views of the water, city, bridge, and Opera house, with almost all of the seating being outdoors.  Their food selections are great, with plenty of gluten-free options, including the best gluten-free pizza I’ve ever had (try their Margherita one).  Note that ordering is different.  You grab your own table, and go to the bar to order food and drink.  You’ll receive a number and a server will come bring you your food.

The Morrison – Tucked behind the raucous pub, is the restaurant portion of The Morrison.  It’s in this quieter area that my mom and I had dinner.  It’s not a bad place to go for dinner and dessert (especially for a date night).  My recommendation is the  Chicken Maryland.

Caminetto – Nestled down a historic street in The Rocks, is a great indoor/outdoor Italian restaurant that serves a great breakfast!  My mom and I went there before walking through the open air market and little shops.  It looks like it would be great for dinner as well, but if you head there for breakfast, try the omelet or porridge.  If you’re gluten-free, they have gluten-free bread available!

Whitewater Restaurant – Along S. Steyne are many restaurants, most of which have a “beachy” feel to them.  My mom and I stumble upon this, while walking towards our hike.  It’s a chic, upscale restaurant, right across from the beach, offering all sorts of great food and drink.  I recommend the Truffle Waygu Beef burger (without the bun for me).  I’ve also heard the vegetarian pasta is good as well!  While I know they are open for all meals, my suggestion is to go there for breakfast or lunch, so you have the view of the beach.

Things to See/Do

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View from Sydney Harbour Bridge

Sydney Harbour Bridge – The very first thing I did was walk the one mile over the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and into Milson’s Point.  In fact, if you have never been to Sydney, make this the first thing you do.  It’s a “pinch me” moment to see all of Sydney, including the Opera House!

Luna Park/Olympic Pool

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Once we walked over the Sydney Harbour Bridge, we headed to Olympic Street to eat at Ripples.  Along the way, we stumbled upon both the Olympic Aquatic Center (it once housed the Olympic swimming competitions), and Luna Park.

Luna Park is slightly creepy to walk through at night, but an unbelievable sight.  Still in operation today, it’s their version of Coney Island in New York.

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Queen Victoria Building – Built in the late ninetieth century, this mall hosts all sorts of shops, cafes, and historical clocks. The well-preserved architecture transports you back to Sydney’s early beginnings.  It’s a must-see on your way to Westfield Tower.

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Sydney Tower Eye – For about $30 AUD per adult, you can head up to the top of the Sydney Tower Eye for some of the most spectacular 360 views of Sydney!  It’s definitely a must-do!

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Darling Harbour / SEA LIFE Sea Aquarium – A short walk down Market Street (from the Sydney Tower), will land you on the foot bridge to Darling Harbor.  It’s a GREAT place to shop, dine, take boat rides, and see some of their famous places, such as SEA LIFE Sea Aquarium.  For $30 AUD per adult, my mom and I spent a few hours, wandering through one of the best aquariums I’ve been to (what sold me was the penguin exhibit).  It’s absolutely worth the walk (and cost) to get there.  My suggestion is to make  day of the Harbour to enjoy all it has to offer.  Since we didn’t get there until late afternoon, we didn’t do much.

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Taronga Zoo – I’m still raving about this experience, because I’ve never been to a zoo quite like this!  For $46 AUD per adult, we spent a full day interacting with animals in open enclosures (I’ve never been THAT close to a roo or a wallaby), as well as taking in the sights of getting very near every other species in Australia and Africa.  This is an absolute must-do in Sydney, although I recommend you spend the extra money to go “behind the scenes” and pet the kangaroos, and other animals.  It’s something I wish I had done.

Note: Eat at Views for lunch – it has spectacular views of Sydney, from across the water.

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Manly Beach – Our final stop was to Manly Beach, which is reminiscent of almost any main beach town, with the one exception that there is a hiking path that takes you along the water, and into rain forests.

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Manly Beach in the winter.

According to most, Manly beats out both Bondi and Coogee.  Next time I travel here, I’ll still visit the other two for my own comparison.  But, definitely put this on your list of things to see!

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Visting The Rocks – One of the most historic sections of Sydney, as it’s the home to the first European settlement, it’s a charming walk for dining, shopping, and sightseeing!  My mom and I walked through this section of town on our last morning in Sydney.

Almost all of the settlement buildings are still in-tact, and if you wander into any of the shops, you will see how these working-class families lived.  One such shop, which had my attention for both it’s jewels (I got very large peridot earrings for $125 AUD) and its history, was Hathi Jewellery.  If you see the old safe above, it’s little pieces of history, like this, that makes you want to wander into every building to see what it still has.

 

Australia, Travel

Australia: Exploring Downtown Melbourne

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View from the top of the AMP building.

Per my previous posts on Australia, I was fortunate to travel here for work.  And, given that I’ve bookended my trip with weekends, I was able to see some things along the way!

Since my first weekend was in Melbourne, I decided to see as much as I could, including a trip to the Great Ocean Road, as well as walking around downtown, exploring what the city had to offer.

Check out what I got to see, do, as well as what my accommodations where, should you need any tips for touring Melbourne in a day!

Accommodations

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View from my room

In the winters of Australia, hotels are very inexpensive.  Thus, I was able to snag a great rate for the Grand Hyatt Melbourne. A large, towering hotel in the middle of downtown, the Grand Hyatt was every bit of luxury and comfort, as I had expected.  Each large room boasts an amazing view of the city, along with a beautiful marbled bathroom and many fantastic amenities.

But what really appealed about this hotel was the sizable gym, pool, and spa that is attached.  The gym rivals most regular commercial gyms one would join, with everything from Crossfit Equipment, to rows of treadmills, ellipticals, bikes, and rowers.  There are two areas of free weights, almost every weight machine one would need, along with all of the other equipment for your usual workouts.  I took advantage of both the gym (every day, whether I liked it or not), along with the spa for a 90-minute deep tissue massage.

And, to add to the level of healthiness, I took advantage of the extensive room service menu that catered to every nationality, and every dietary preference.  From the gluten-free pastas and breads, to the power kale salad, and chia seed pudding, I was never disappointed with my meals.

I HIGHLY recommend you stay here, not just for the above, but the proximity to everything downtown.

What to Explore

Federation Square

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View of Yarra River from Federation Square

Federation Square reminds me of a tiny Times Square with lots of tourist shops, cheap places to eat, and Visitors’ Centers. What’s fascinating about it is that it blends well with all of the museums, theaters, high rises, and historical architecture as well.  Nestled along the Yarra River, it’s a great walk with beautiful views of the city.

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National Gallery of Victoria

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I love visiting art galleries all over the world.  What inspires people is so vastly different, which means the interpretation of art can be so vastly different.  At the NGV, there was a little something that appealed to everyone.

My favorite areas were the history of mass produced luxuries, such as furniture and home decor from very notable U.S. Furniture and Decor artists, couture clothing designs from notable historical designers in France, and of course, artwork from notable painters, from all over the world.

But, out of everything I saw, the Baccarat Candelabras from 1903, leading up to the illuminated photography gallery, were the most stunning lighting fixtures I’ve seen.

Note: Coming to the NGV in August: Dior.  I’m so sad I’m missing this exhibit!

The Park on St. Kilda Road

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I can only liken this park to a mini Hyde Park in New York.  There are beautiful trees, walking paths, wildlife, memorials, and a great view of the city!  It’s a nice break from the crowds that tend to develop in Federation Square!

Where to Dine

While most of my meals were spent in the hotel, I was able to venture out twice! Check out two great recommendations below:

Coda – All the best restaurants, bars, and clubs are down alleyways and side streets, including Coda.  Coda’s atmosphere had an indoor/outdoor industrial feel to it, while serving up some amazing Vietnamese fusion dishes.  I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a place that isn’t too crowded on a Sunday night.

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View of the city from Nobu

Nobu – I’ve been to other Nobu’s in the U.S. and while there is a high level of sophistication, both with clientele and the overall atmosphere, the food has always been decent, not amazing.  This Nobu, nestled in the Crown casino, had a much more relaxed, intimate feel, but the sushi and sashimi were incredibly fresh – I’m still raving about it, and I’m not even a big seafood eater!  If you need a “one night splurge”, I highly recommend.

 

Australia, Travel

Australia: Touring the Great Ocean Road

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12 Apostles

This past year, I’ve done the Golden Circle in Iceland, the Great Loop in Yellowstone, and now I can add the Great Ocean Road in Australia, to the list.

Prior to leaving for Australia, I booked a tour with Grayline, which if you follow my blog, then you know I’m a huge fan of them, ever since Iceland. They have comfortable buses with free wi-fi, engaging tour guides, and wonderful touring packages.  In this case, I booked the Great Ocean Road tour with lunch at Apollo Bay hotel (more on that later). (NOTE: Sit on the left side of the bus going there.)

Driving to the Ocean

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The beginning of the town of Torquay

It’s about a 1 1/2 hour drive to the beginning of the road (which is mostly rolling hills, ports, and farmland), which lands you in Torquay first.  This town is known for it’s surfing beaches, beckoning professional surfers from all over the world.

About twenty minutes into the drive, you could see the ocean, peeking out from over the rolling hills, on into our first stop at Anglesea – a sleepy town in the winter, which turns into a hot spot in the summer.  This stop allowed us to stretch our legs, walk around the shops and cafes, and gather in the picnic area for some Australian favorites: crackers and vegemite, limingtons, and Billy Tea.  The history behind this tea is related to the old mining days, where large tin cans of meat were shipped from France.  When the cans were empty, they’d fill them with water, boil them over a fire, and make their tea.  If you take this tour, try it.  If not, head to Oaks Bakery Cafe, where a large Cappuccino is $4.50 AUD (they also have an amazing assortment of freshly baked goods too).

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Art installation in Anglesea

Our next stop was to Aireys Inlet, to take a peek over the cliffs at Fairhaven Beach – it was the first stop of many pristine, panoramic views of the coast line, and the first that made me realize where I was in the world.  Across the way of the Great Australian Bight, was Tasmania, and past that… Antarctica!

Eastern View

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Our next stop at Eastern View (which also holds the Great Ocean Road Memorial Arch), allowed us time to step foot on the beach.  (Note: When I said I needed a beach trip, I had envisioned myself in a swimsuit, not two layers of pants and rain boots).

From Eastern View, we had about a 1 1/2 hour drive to Apollo Bay, which allowed for some of the most beautiful views along the way.  It’s the reason why it is so important to sit on the left-hand side of the bus!  We saw Kangaroos, koalas, fishermen out rock fishing (some of the most dangerous fishing in the world), dogs running off-leash on private beaches, and miles and miles of beach.

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Apollo Bay

 

When we arrived into Apollo Bay (named after a famous British ship that was docked there), I immediately headed for the Apollo Bay Hotel lunch.  It’s a good restaurant with outdoor seating, and a three-course lunch menu, most of which I couldn’t eat, due to my allergy.  (They were as accommodating as they could be with it, but given how busy the place was, they weren’t all that friendly.) My meal consisted of pumpkin soup, chicken curry, and a cappuccino.  To be honest, unless you can eat super large meals, and don’t care about food quality, do not get the combo package with the tour line and instead, opt to find somewhere else to dine – there are plenty of other places there.

With the hour we had there, I had about twenty minutes left to walk to the bay, and then walk over to the shops, and grab some Blackberry ice cream, in a gluten-free waffle cone (imagine my delight at this), at The Ice Cream Tub (Dooley’s Ice Cream) – one of the best ice cream shops I’ve been to in the world!

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12 Apostles

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After another sizable drive, we landed at 12 Apostles.  The “12 Apostles” are (supposedly) 12 sandstone rock structures, that jut out from the ocean (we all only counted nine). It’s a very busy stop, with a lot of narrow walkways, and a lot of tourists.  Patience is needed, but it pays off when you take your time to take in the views, and get in some amazing pictures!

If you want to skip the crowds, and get an even better view, you can pay the $144 AUD to take a 15-minute helicopter tour of them, which I wish I had done.  However, if you don’t, the only perk to doing it by land, is to get a chance to see some wildlife up close and personal.  I got to “meet” the cutest Wallaby!

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Loch Ard Gorge

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Our second to last stop was at Loch Ard Gorge, proving that sometimes, you do need to save the best for last.  There’s a very famous shipwreck story that goes along with this place, and it’s worth the read, and even more worth the drive.

As with Mt. Etna, Mt. Stromboli, and the Taj Mahal, the emotion this beach evoked from me, can only be described as pure elation.  I’ve never been to a private beach with this much beauty, anywhere, in the entire world.

A Beautiful Ending to a Perfect Day

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To cap off our tour, we headed to Port Campbell to purchase snacks and drinks for our 2 1/2 hour ride home.  It was there we were able to watch the sun begin to set, over another private beach.

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Australia, Travel

Australia: Getting There and Back

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First, I have to say how fortunate I am to be able to travel to some incredible places, both for work and for leisure.  2017 has definitely been the year of “feeding the travel bug”, and I know I’ll be going into 2018, awed by just how much of the world I’ve been able to see.

Of course, getting there can be the least fun part of any trip, which is why I try to include my experiences on getting places, so that you can take the worry out of your entire trip!

Flying to Sydney – Upgrades, United Club, and Long Layovers!

I had to take two flights to get to Sydney – a morning flight (from D.C.) to San Francisco, and an evening flight to Sydney.  This meant an 11-hour layover.

Since work was paying for the flights, I flew economy to San Francisco, but used my miles to upgrade to Polaris Business class from San Francisco to Sydney.  If you have the miles (and a few extra dollars), it is worth EVERY BIT of what it costs overall.  It was 30,000 miles and $50 to do it.  More on Polaris Business in a bit…

Upgrading allowed me free access to the United Club for the day, which was much-needed. (Note: If you’re not weighed down by emails, it would be worth it to explore San Francisco for the day, just know you should give yourself an hour each way to get to and from the airport, with traffic; as well as two hours to checkin, get through security, and get to your gate for boarding.)

Polaris Business Class

I’ve flown first class before, including from Qatar to New Delhi (on Qatar), and so far (in my limited experience with American and International airlines), nothing has compared to Polaris Business.

United’s response to customers’ feedback has been heard and responded to.  While the Polaris lounges are still under construction (except for Chicago), and the existing planes have had moderate upgrades made, you can tell that the small improvements they’ve made so far, have had a massive impact.

(Note: My only gripe was not getting access to United Global First’s lounge, when there was no first class on the plane to Sydney, only Polaris Business.  The United Club in San Francisco is narrow and over-populated with all sorts of disrespectful travelers, which means I still can’t justify an annual membership.)

My experience started with my flight attendant taking my coat, while I was getting settled into my seat, which was filled with pillows, bedding, and a toiletries kit from Saks Fifth Avenue.  I also asked for a set of pajamas to change into (yes, those are available upon request, along with slippers).

Prior to take off, I changed into the pajamas (which are 100% cotton, and ridiculously comfortable), along with the provided socks, and settled into my seat.  I was also given a glass of champagne and some rather delicious chocolates.

Once we were level, the flight attendant came around with hot towels, a wine cart for a wine flight tasting, and then dinner, which was three courses.  Since I have Celiac, it was already noted in the system, which meant my meals were already chosen and prepared for me.  Otherwise, I would have had three options for each course.

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When dinner was over, I didn’t even make it to dessert (which sucks because it was a make-your-own-sundae bar) – I passed out… for seven hours.

The sleeping experience exceeded my expectations.  Not only did the seat unfold to a complete 180 degrees, the bedding was warm and comfortable. As a special touch, within the Saks toiletries kit, were a lavender-scented eye mask, and a lavender pillow spray by Cowshed (they included a whole pack of amenities).  This scent is a natural sleep aid, and certainly helped me sleep peacefully.

At around 2:30am (Australia time), I was wide awake, with four hours of the flight left.  I watched another two movies, did some work, and prepared for the next segment of my travel.  (Note: The bonus to being awake before everyone else, is extra time in the bathroom to get ready.)  I also wandered over to the snack cart, which included all sorts of treats, sandwiches, drinks, cheeses, etc.

About an hour before landing, breakfast was served, which was incredibly healthy – vegetable egg white omelet with fruit salad.

Before I knew it, we were landing in Sydney, and I was completely refreshed… and ready for my next layover.

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Sydney Airport – Customs, Getting to Domestic Gates 

Part of the “perks” of Polaris, is the special “fast pass” you receive to bypass the customs line.  I breezed through security in less than 10 minutes, grabbed my bag, and was on my way to the domestics terminal.

In order to get to that terminal (for all domestic flights in Australia), you will need to follow the signs to your airline of choice.  In this case, my next flight was on Qantas.  Once you are there, it will seem confusing, as to whether you need your boarding pass.  YOU DO NOT.  They will ask for it, in order to direct you to the right line.

Since I had a 6 1/2 hour layover, I had to wait 30 minutes before I could check in, as they can only accept check-ins, six hours before a flight.  (Note: There is limited seating while you wait, but there is free wifi to keep you company.)

When I could finally check in, I was sent back through security (shoes do not come off, liquids do not come out of your bag – only laptops).  After that, you are then directed to take a shuttle bus to the Qantas Domestic gates.

The bus ride is a bit bumpy (if you have no choice but to stand), and takes about 10 minutes.

Qantas Terminal

The terminal at Qantas has a lot of great places to dine, and shop.  The only thing to note is that bathrooms are small, and lines are long.  I took advantage of the seating in the food court to use the wifi and get some work done.

Qantas Flight

Being able to fly along the coast line, was the first real sight I had of exactly where I was 🙂  Aside from the view, the service for the 1 1/2 hour flight was great, offering beverages (tea was the popular drink of choice), cheese, and crackers.  When we landed, I had my luggage in less than five minutes.

Getting to Major Downtown Hotels

 

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40+ hours and I’m still alive!

Out of the entire trip so far (which was now 40 hours and counting), the SkyBus option was the least comfortable, but the easiest/cheapest option.  I did a lot of research on how to get to the Grand Hyatt, and this seemed the best way to do it, for 1/3 the price.  For $18 USD, I paid for a roundtrip ticket to/from the airport (note that the taxi would have been $48 one way and if you use a credit card, another 10% fee for that).

The Sky Bus picks you up, right outside of Terminal 1, and it takes you to Southern Cross Station.  Once you are there, you go to the kiosk on the center island (it’s right where the bus lets you out), and let them know which hotel in the city you are going to.  It takes about 10 minutes to get the assignment, and another five minutes to load the bus.

The trip, itself, can take well over an hour, depending on how many stops there are.  If you choose to take it on the way back, I’d suggest a taxi to Southern Cross (it will be more reliable on time).  If not, plan on leaving four hours ahead of your flight, as a precaution.

So… four airports, three flights, and 43 hours later, I was finally in Melbourne!  Check out my other posts for more on my trip, and recommendations of what to do, where to stay, and where to eat/drink!

Travel, United States

Road Trip Day 4-8: Exploring Colorado

My other half and I love adventurous vacations, which have taken us pretty much all over the world.  Several months ago, we decided that we’d stay in our “own backyard”, and explore what the areas of the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Mt. Rushmore/Keystone, and Colorado had to offer (click here to see all of our posts for our other days).

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Us at Keystone Resort

The ultimate goal of our vacation was to visit his family in Denver, and some of mine in Boulder.  However, we also wanted to explore Colorado as much as we could, while there.  Below are my recommendations, based on what we did.

Things to See

Loveland Pass – If you don’t have a fear of heights, and happen to have something warm to wear (it’s literally 40 degrees with wind, in July), then take the drive up Loveland Pass!  While it’s considered to be one of the most dangerous roads in America, it also happens to have some incredibly scenic views!

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At the top, reward yourself with a photo next to the Continental Divide sign, boasting the 11,990 ft. elevation number.

Keystone Resort – If you think ski resorts are only for snow activities, think again!  Almost all resorts turn into a BMX biker haven, and also have many different summertime activities, making it a great place to spend part of the summer.

We took the Gondola (about $30 per person with a $10 food voucher included), to the summit, which is 11,640 feet up.  The views were breathtaking, literally, as I got altitude sickness from the height (note, I drank four large bottles of water to prevent headaches, and instead, ended up being very light-headed/dizzy).  Still, the views were too amazing to leave!

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We decided to eat at The Summit House, which for those who are gluten-intolerant, will rejoice in the fact that they can serve all sandwiches and burgers on gluten-free buns!

When we finished with lunch, we headed back down to the resort, and walked around.  It happened to be kids’ day, so there were a lot of activities going on.  We played cornhole, went into some shops, and stopped at Mary’s Mountain Cookies, as they had very large, extremely tasty, gluten-free cookies in many different flavors.

Pearl Street in BoulderWalking Pearl Street makes for a great Sunday afternoon.  There are street performers, lots of restaurants, unique shops, and plenty of people watching!  Check out the Dushanbe Teahouse (see in the next section below), not too far from there, when you need an afternoon break!

Garden of the Gods (Colorado Springs) – I visited this as a kid, but really couldn’t appreciate it for what it was (back then, I felt like I was being forced to stare at rocks).  Going back now, put this as one of my top five favorite walks of all time.  It’s free to all, and a great way to spend an afternoon!  (The kid in me loved being able to climb the rocks.)

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Manitou Springs – After we finished at Garden of the Gods, we drove to this little town I had never heard of before, to stop and get ice cream.  I wish I had known about it, prior to our trip, because I would have booked a room in an old inn for a night.  It’s a very old mining town, with some historic inns (some of them are very haunted), amazing/charming restaurants, and a lot of little artisanal shops.  It’s also very close to Pike’s Peak, which means you can take the cog train to the top, from there.  Definitely check it out and stay a night if you can!

Red Rock Amphitheater – Red Rock is known for its natural acoustics, making it a great place to hold concerts.  At night, artists from all over the world make it a point to stop and perform there.  During the day, people use it for insanely hard workouts, hikes, and as a point of interest to take pictures of the Denver skyline.  Definitely make it a point to stop for a few minutes, and take in the view – it’s free to anyone.

Dinosaur Ridge – This place was a last minute addition to our trip, and we are certainly glad we made it a point to stop and take part of the walk.  There is a visitor’s center on one site, and a couple of different hikes from different parking lots.

The museum gives you a good background, as to what to look for in the rock, as well as the types of dinosaurs that were indigent to the area.

We took the main hike, across the road from the museum, which afforded us foot imprints from several different dinosaurs, fossils of prehistoric leaves, an education on the layers of rock and how old they are, as well as great views of Denver.

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Places to Eat/Drink

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The “Paloma” from North County

North County (Denver)– There are days I really miss San Diego, so it was amazing to see that someone opened a restaurant, dedicated to the vibe and fare of one of my favorite places on earth.  The food is Cali-Mex, and the drinks are hand-crafted – a big nod to the growing craft cocktail experience in the SoCal area.  If you happen to go there, sit outside and dine on the fish tacos or the chicken salad.  Also, be sure to try each of their bottled alcoholic beverages – none of them will disappoint.  When you’re done, head over to the biergarten and ice cream stand, located next to Hangar 1 by the Air and Space Museum.  It’s a fun little place in the suburbs of Denver.

Boulder Dushanbe Tea House – This tea house has just about the most amazing story I’ve ever heard, and I am kicking myself for not taking more pictures.  As you can see in the video snippet below, the ornate columns and tile work were not fabricated.  Instead, in 1987, the Mayor of Dushanbe, had all of the materials packed up, and sent to Boulder, along with 40 skilled workers form Tajikistan, to put together this tea house, using no tools.  It took three years to be built, and has been open for almost 30 years.  There is an exact one in Dushanbe, with only two in the world.  Click on the link above to read the full story. (Note: Reservations are a MUST – it books up fast.)

I ordered the Hibiscus Mimosa (it’s a must-have) and the Spicy Indonesian Peanut Noodles (if you don’t like spicy food, you might want to skip it).  Truly, it’s a must-experience at least once in your life!

El Five (Denver) – I cannot say enough good things about this restaurant!  It sits in my top five restaurants I’ve been to in the world, accounting for food/drink quality, ambience, decor, and view.  The dishes are tapas from Gibraltar, with modern spins such as vegetarian paella with quinoa. The drinks are crafted into works of art, such as mine that came with an orchid (name not included, since their bar menu changes frequently).

The decor is reminiscent of old Israeli comic books, coupled with chic dining decor and lighting.  But hands down, what completely sold me on visiting there, was the view.  From the deck (which you can dine on), you have an unobstructed view of downtown.

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T Street Roadhouse (Denver) – Nestled in a town center in the suburbs of Denver, is a place called T Street Roadhouse.  It’s a great happy hour/casual dining place, offering an American menu of fares, including gluten-free flatbread pizzas!  If you’re looking for something casual/relaxed to do, go there, and then head over to the movie theater, or Lucky Strike for bowling!  The Town Center has a lot to do!