Sunday, September 27, 2015

This Nest is Best... Right?

If I had to sum up Austin in three words right now: lively, eclectic, congested. There are too many people for the infrastructure (roads, parks, places to kayak, water for drinking, parking spots) of Austin to handle presently. My home city of over twenty years is bursting at the seams. I hate to be one of those curmudgeons wagging my finger while yelling, "You kids get off my lawn", but I am headed in that awful direction. With a long list of repairs, replacements and remodeling to do at the 1952 House, Chad and I started to wonder if staying in our current home offers the right lifestyle for us. 

Chad enjoys the flexibility to work from wherever he might choose, but does need to be near Austin for client meetings a few times a week. Real estate prices in Austin are out of control, rising really quickly. We could sell our house today, as is, and make a nice profit. But then where would we live?! We couldn't afford to buy another home (even a similarly cozy-sized home in a less desirable area) within Austin city limits. Chad and I started to think outside of Austin city limits where we might be able to have a bit bigger house without so much noise and congestion in our daily lives. My requirements for our not-Austin-but-near-Austin search: the town has to have a charming, historic square or Main Street area, an average commute time of 45 minutes or less to Austin; NO suburban bedroom communities lousy with fast food drive-thru places, model homes on clear-cut land and a lack of culture. Yes. I have high standards. Deal with it. I have.

Our search for a not-Austin-but-near-Austin home took us to Bastrop, Taylor and Georgetown. 

Bastrop, Texas features a really charming main square with historic buildings. There is a waterfront park. There are locally owned restaurants. We had good lunch at Neighbors Kitchen & Yard overlooking the Colorado River. However, the homes near the main square in Bastrop are pricey and tend to be small. Charm isn't cheap. After the devastating wildfires in 2011 in and around Bastrop, many of the homes in the area just east of Bastrop are new construction and lacking shade trees. I like a little history to my house and I MUST have shade trees in my yard. Best wishes, Bastrop. I'll visit. Let's keep in touch. 

Taylor, Texas  has a historic Main Street area rife with remodeling and restoration happening. Chad and I found a few affordable, very nice homes that offered most of our wish-list items on in the Taylor area. One of the homes was even close to Main Street. We lunched at Ricoco's Latin Grill, which had a vegetarian burrito on the menu, thank you very much. We took note of the cute retro movie theater and the coming-soon craft brewery and beer garden. Overall Taylor was too far from Austin for commuting a few times a week and still a bit sleepy for a night owl like me.

Georgetown, Texas boasts a historic square with a proper, old courthouse. We brunched at the lovely El Monumento restaurant overlooking a waterfront park. (Waterfront parks are a running theme for me. Love!) We stopped at Galaxy Bakery for the best cupcakes ever! Georgetown is a great place to spend an afternoon. I'll be back. However, a home near the historic square in Georgetown that meets our need for trees, a second bathroom and a dedicated room for Chad's office is too much to ask on our budget. 

While Round Rock, Texas would also be a fine choice for a not-Austin-but-near-Austin home with its historic area and appealing nightlife, the prices for our prospective 1500-square-foot dream homes with mature shade trees are too high. I also fear that I would develop an unhealthy habit of daily trips to Round Rock Donuts shop. So, no.

Conclusion: we are 95% sure that we are staying put. Chad and I agreed that while his work keeps him tethered to the Austin area, the 1952 House is the best nest for us. Soon we'll get all new windows, new exterior paint, a new bathtub and new bathroom subfloor for our sweet, little, old house. We only have one bathroom - the horror! I'm not a fan of having a port-o-potty out in the yard and showering at the gym everyday while the bathroom is repaired and updated, but first-world problems will be dealt with accordingly. The value is in the land here. We aren't too concerned with resale value, but we do want to be comfortable and not fall through the rotten bathroom floor while we're here. Wish us luck!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Last Full Day of Vacay

We started our last full day of vacation in the Louisville area with brunch at Bristol Bar & Grille on Main Street. The downtown location was an easy walk from our hotel. (We wanted to hit the road at a decent hour to have time to tour another distillery.) It was a brunch buffet. I'm not a fan of buffets. Given the choice, I'd rather have something freshly prepared when I order it at a restaurant, rather than serving myself gelatinous foods from a steam tray or selecting baked goods from a mini-mountain of growing-staler-by-the-moment starchy wonders. The Bristol's bountiful brunch buffet was spread out on many tables in a large windowless room down a hallway behind the bar area. It was dark in Bristol on Main, despite having huge floor to ceiling windows in the main dining area. The overall decor felt dated, and left me with the impression of being in an anonymous chain hotel restaurant. Our server was a really nice, personable guy, and the high point of the brunch. Other than our awesome server, I think we picked the wrong location of Bristol Bar & Grille. One of our Uber drivers in Louisville told us that the Bristol on Bardstown Road has a fun atmosphere. 

We enjoyed a nice drive out to the Buffalo Trace Distillery with no aggressive tailgaters. Arriving up the twisting, tree-lined driveway to the distillery we saw several large buildings made out of of different materials, each best-suited to a particular product made or aged within, as we learned on the tour. Lots of history at this distillery and lots of different products made this an interesting venture.

In one of the barrel aging houses we were treated to a short ghost story. Our tour guide told us of a lady on a tour who stepped outside for fresh air. Initially the tour guide thought it was a bit of claustrophobia on the lady's part, but later the lady cornered the tour guide. "Don't you lie to me," she said to the tour guide. "I know this place is haunted. I had to step out because I saw a man in old-time clothes patting the barrels, checking them as if he was tucking children into bed for the night. I stepped outside for some air, and saw the same man up in one of the top floor windows, staring down at me like I was the ghost." Of course, Buffalo Trace Distillery also offers ghost tours on Thursday through Saturday evenings. The distillery has also been featured on a variety of ghost hunter "reality" shows. Boo!

Near the end of our tour, our group bellied up to the bar for the liquor tasting. Chad enjoyed a few sips of different bourbons. Then I was in for a treat, because Buffalo Trace Distillery makes vodka. As aforementioned, I do no like bourbon, but I am a fan of vodka. Cheers! Not bad. We also shared a taste of tiny root beer floats made with McGillicuddy's Root Beer and Buffalo Trace Bourbon Cream. Also not bad. I wish that we had explored the grounds a bit more before leaving Buffalo Trace, but it was a hot day. We were starting to melt. 

Upon arrival back into Louisville proper, it was evident from our gurgling stomachs and wilting moods that we needed food. We parked at Garage Bar on Market Street in the NuLu area. The former car mechanic garage had an industrial/rustic feel in a clean, well-lit space. There was a beautiful bar with antiqued-mirror-backed shelves reminiscent of an old pharmacist counter along one wall. The bathrooms were clean. Hallelujah! I had a delicious lavender honey lemonade drink with vodka. (What? I was on vacation.) Chad and I shared a mixed local leaves salad with pecans, charred peach and shaved cheese, and then shared a summer squash pizza. Amazing! If I lived in Louisville, this would be my go-to place. There are also ping-pong tables outside and some lawn games, if you're feeling the need to be outdoorsy, which Chad and I were not.

Although the nice manager from Friday night at Proof on Main invited us to stop in Sunday night at the bar for a drink on the house, we declined. Our waiter from brunch Sunday morning invited us to visit him at his other restaurant job down the street on Sunday evening, but we declined. People were so friendly and inviting in Louisville. We were tired from a packed schedule of sightseeing over the course of our eight day vacation. Even though it was our last night of vacation, we went back to the hotel early in the evening. I studied my script for an upcoming dinner mystery show. We packed for our morning departure. 

The next day, after another great room service breakfast, we departed the 21c hotel and Louisville. Chad drove the two of us back to Nashville to catch our flight home. We considered going to Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and Art Museum before the airport, but is closed on Mondays. *sad trombone*

It was good to get home to our pesky pets and the 1952 House. While on vacation Chad and I talked at length about whether or not we want to stay in our current house, or move to a quieter area out of the congestion and noise of Central Austin. Check back soon for tales of traversing small towns near Austin in search of a slower pace, more affordable real estate and less congestion.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Sweet Surprise on the Bourbon Trail

We treated ourselves in true vacation fashion, and started our day with some of our favorite things. Chad loves a big eggy breakfast. I love a fruit smoothie and toasted bagel for breakfast. Hooray for room service! Also, the fruit smoothie was awesome! Thanks 21c hotel!

We hit the trail to tour the Maker's Mark Distillery in Loretto, KY. The country roads are scenic with rolling verdant hills, other bourbon distilleries and barns with colorful painted quilt crests. We also saw huge, tall warehouses in the middle of grassy fields, far separated from any other buildings. These are the off site aging facilities for the barrels of bourbon as we later learned on the tour. The grounds of the distillery are beautiful. The history of the distillery is interesting. Even if you don't like bourbon (like me), visit Maker's Mark distillery and take the tour. The three most interesting things I learned on the Maker's Mark Distillery tour: The limestone filtered water in Kentucky makes for more palatable, less astringent whiskey/bourbon. Marjorie "Margie" Samuels, wife of then distillery owner, T. William Samuels, designed the distinctive packaging, label and wax seal of Maker's Mark. Each bottle of Maker's Mark is still hand-dipped in the iconic red wax seal today. 

Just before the end of our tour, our guide brought us into one last barrel aging house with no warning of what we were going to see. I wasn't the only one to audibly gasp at the amazingly beautiful surprise: an installation of Chihuly glass art in the ceiling! I love Chihuly-style glass, and to find it in a bourbon distillery in Kentucky in such abundance and splendor was breathtaking. (Watch the video embedded below to get the full effect.) 

We walked past the old fire station on our way back to the parking lot. It makes sense that distilleries had their own fire trucks due to all the wooden barrels and flammable liquids. Before getting back on the road, we stopped at the Toll Gate Cafe for sandwiches and iced tea. We also shared a chocolate topped bourbon cookie. My advice: each get your own bourbon cookie, because they are too yummy to share.

firetruck at Maker's Mark Distillery
We made our way down winding country roads, thwarting a few frightening tailgaters along the way, back to Louisville. We landed in the NuLu area to peruse a few shops such as Revelry (Loved this shop/gallery! I harbor a tiny bit of regret that I didn't buy two prints I liked there.), Why Louisville (lots of t-shirts) and a funky little bakery called Please & Thank You. The rosemary lemonade from Please & Thank You hit the spot on a hot summer day. I love a good artisan lemonade. Seriously. 

We drove a bit around the historic home district of Louisville. Some of the homes are immaculately maintained and grand. Other homes are clearly historic, but looking as if they were subdivided to rental units and a little funky. Some are charmingly cruddy. Sadly, some are just cruddy. It's eclectic and real; not overly re-gentrified. We saw a wedding in progress at the Conrad-Caldwell House. We restrained ourselves by not honking and not yelling "woooo" out the car windows. We're classy.

Then it was Chad's naptime, so we returned to the hotel to rest before dinner. 

We took the recommendation of the friendly manager at Proof on Main and went to El Camino for dinner. El Camino has a tiki-surfer vibe and serves Mexican-influenced food. Yay for a vegetarian plate! The food was good. The drinks were fine. The decor was fun. Our sweet waiter seemed a bit flustered by the end of our meal telling us about how "slammed" the restaurant was. Um... really? There were plenty of empty tables, no wait to be seated on a Saturday night and plenty of empty seats at the bar. We smiled and nodded, trying diligently not to smirk in disbelief. I think if this guy ever saw any half-popular restaurant in Austin on a weekend evening, he'd want to run screaming, but would only be able to do so after carefully navigating his way through the throngs of hungry people crowding the precious-little waiting area.  

funky decor at El Camino

funky lights at El Camino

After dinner, we walked around the Bardstown Road area, window-shopping and people-watching. It seems to be the hip, happening district where the cool kids hang out. Wooooo!

Back at the hotel, we perused even more art. The exhibition space at 21c hotel museum is vast and eclectic. I especially liked the jungle scene dayglo room lit with black lights so that everything glowed garishly and creepily like a ride at a twisted theme park. Yay!

We had a busy, interesting, full day. I'm tired just recounting it here. Tune in later for a slightly less busy, but just as interesting account of our last full day of vacay. 

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Onward to Lovely Louisville

We planned to pick up our rental car and visit Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and Art Museum before exiting Nashville, but we hit a few snags. Despite calling my credit card company in advance to notify them of our travel plans, my credit card was declined. Then my phone lit up with a fraud alert from my credit card company. Standing at the car rental desk, I called the credit card company and said aloud all sorts of passwords and private information for anyone in earshot to hear. The nice lady at the fraud alert center told us to try the card again. The very patient lady at the car rental desk tried the card again. Still declined. After a brief hold, the nice lady at the fraud alert center told us to try the card again. The very patient lady at the car rental desk tried the card again. Still declined. Then the car rental system shut my credit card out for 48 hours after the third decline. Then we tried my debit card. New verse, repeat the chorus, fraud alert, declined. Finally we put the transaction on one of Chad's business credit cards with no problem, but with an hour and a half lost from our schedule.

While still in Nashville I looked forward to seeing the Jaume Plensa outdoor sculptures and installations at Cheekwood after seeing a few of his works at the Frist. I regret that we didn't regroup/calm ourselves after ninety minutes of wrangling fraud alerts and go to Cheekwood as planned. Our nerves were frazzled and we were ready to be on our way to Louisville, thinking we wanted to avoid rush hour with the three hour trip ahead. Little did we know that there was way more nerve-frazzling to endure on I-65. 

Chad's friend, Ed, forewarned us of the speed traps along I-65, but he didn't have the psychic abilities to warn us about all of the construction and abrupt lane closures along I-65 North. At one point in the construction chaos, I-65 reduced from three lanes to two lanes, then the two lanes split for about ten miles divided by concrete barriers with no shoulders. Posted speed limits dropped to 45 miles per hour in the constructions zones which meant most locals drove about 70 miles per hour. I did the white-knuckled driving in our rented crossover vehicle (a.k.a. less convenient mini-van). I did speed and broke the posted speed limit, but I swear it was just so we didn't get run over, rammed or have shots fired at the vehicle. I also got to witness my first ever eighteen-wheeler tire blowout! A giant tire flew through the air and bounced along the roadway before snapping into a long, angry flopping serpent. I steered off to the shoulder, which thankfully reappeared for a few miles amidst the construction. The car behind me also steered to the shoulder, then whipped around our car after passing the flying steel belted radial projectile. I barely slowed, much less stopped, and got right back onto the road too, because the shoulder ended again and the concrete barriers were back. I hate I-65 North. I made Chad do the rest of the driving in and around Louisville. 

Our first stop in Louisville was Whole Foods Market. We needed some healthy salads real bad. When traveling, I find that most restaurants regard making healthy salads either too challenging or too unpopular. I love Whole Foods salad bar in almost any city. We sat in Whole Foods at a booth and ate our salads, chugging water, waiting for my blood pressure to drop back to normal after the harrowing drive. 

Chad drove to our hotel in downtown Louisville, 21c museum hotel. Wow! What an amazing concept! There was art everywhere, including red plastic penguin sculptures that migrated around the interior and exterior of the hotel, a three-story-tall gilded copy of Michelangelo's David sculpture out front, light bulb panels with infinity mirrors in the elevator, a mini smoke ring garden in a courtyard, paintings, photos, installations and even original cut paper art in our room! It took us two separate explorations just to see all of the massive exhibit spaces at 21c museum hotel. A channel on the hotel TVs shows short art programs. Our king-size deluxe room was spacious, comfortable and well-appointed with free WiFi. This place is definitely in my top five of hotels I've stayed in worldwide. My one complaint: the tiny refrigerator in our room was full of mini-bar items. I need somewhere to stash my own drinks and the inevitable leftovers from huge restaurant portions. I don't want the overpriced mini-bar mess.

lovely artwork & requisite mint julep cups in our Louisville 21c hotel room

After getting settled in our room, we walked around downtown and saw so many museums, arts facilities and sports arenas! We watched the sun set over the Ohio River at the Louisville Waterfront Park, complete with steamboats on the near horizon. Then we wandered through the pretty East Plaza fountains and water features. On the West Plaza lawn of The Kentucky Center we stumbled upon an outdoor showing of the movie "The Princess Bride" to a crowd of maybe 100 people on a Friday night. I marveled at the charmingly manageable lack of congestion all over downtown Louisville. (When outdoor movies are shown in Austin on the lawn of The Long Center on Wednesday nights, there are usually thousands of people vying for space. Yes, there is a running theme that I am weary of the crowds in Austin.)

Repeal by Aaron Wheeler, part of Gallopalooza in Louisville, KY

We spotted several Gallopalooza sculptures while exploring Louisville. Gallopalooza horse, horse on bourbon barrel and mint julep sculptures are customized by local artists and appear throughout the Louisville area as a way to bolster local artists and improve tourism in the area. (Austin did a version of this several years ago with big guitar statues, many of which can now be seen at baggage claim carousel 3 in Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.)

big guitar art in Austin airport

Our first night in Louisville we dined at the 21c hotel restaurant, Proof on Main. Disclaimer: I'm no foodie. The restaurant was expensive, but overall delicious with inventive dishes. Our patient server helped me find vegetarian options. My advice: skip the oily "blistered green beans" side dish. For dessert Chad and I loved the "chocolate goo cake". The mixed drinks were fantastic. One of the restaurant managers visited our table and made recommendations for other places to visit in Louisville. We actually went to two of the four recommended places and loved both. (More on that later.)

After dinner we took the elevator up to our room. No designated driver or taxi needed. 

Check back soon for tales from "The Bourbon Trail". Be advised: I do not like bourbon, but Chad does.